Axed after 41 years: ‘Devastated’ panto stars told they won’t be back at York Theatre Royal

The principals of Sleeping Beauty at York Theatre Royal, L-R: Suzy Cooper, Martin Barrass, David Leonard and AJ Powell. Photograph: Anthony Robling
12 Jan 2020 @ 4.24 pm
| Entertainment

The star of York’s legendary panto has told of his distress and devastation after the main cast were told they won’t be coming back.

York Theatre Royal executive director Tom Bird has told Martin Barrass, David Leonard, Suzy Cooper and AJ Powell that this will be their last panto at the theatre.


Now Martin, who stars as the Queen in Sleeping Beauty – which runs until 25 January – has hit out at the decision.

He described it as “ill informed”. And he’s said he’d love the cast – including Berwick Kaler who has said he wants to return as dame – to take the panto to another theatre next Christmas.

AJ has also given his reaction. He said on Facebook: “It’s ludicrous. Totally disregarding the loyal audience for the past 41 years.”

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What they were told

Told it’s over – David Leonard, Martin Barrass, Suzy Cooper and A.J Powell. Photograph: Anthony Robling
Berwick first took the role of dame in the Theatre Royal panto in 1977, and over the decades it has evolved into a unique festive treat with the same gang starring every year.

But that looks to be all over.

Speaking to Jonathan Cowap in an interview broadcast on BBC Radio York on Sunday (12 January), Martin revealed how the news that was broken to them.

You can listen to the whole interview here.

He said:

  • It was in a meeting yesterday. I couldn’t attend it but I was told by proxy if that’s the right word.

    With Tom just saying we’re not going to be asking you back. So this means it’s the final year. Because we’re taking a different direction.

    We don’t know what the entertainment will be.

    You’re thinking, you’d better be deciding soon, because in the old days you announce what the panto is on the last night – and that’s just two weeks away.

    So the smoke signals that have been sent out is, we don’t know what the future lies ahead, but the future won’t be with you.

How did that make him feel? “Devastated. I’m fortunate as an actor to have done a lot of TV parts, I’ve done West End for a year and a half in The Man With Two Guvnors.

“Nothing compares to this. This is in a channel all of its own.

“I really, really, really mean that. I adore the audiences. It’s a show where you can’t wait to get on stage.”

Show on the move?

Berwick Kaler in his ‘final’ panto, The Grand Old Dame of York. Photograph: Anthony Robling
Martin said he would love to take the panto to another theatre in York.

He told Jonathan Cowap: “My dream would be to go elsewhere – within York, obviously. Take our show elsewhere. And there are good enough theatres to.”

That could include Berwick Kaler back as the dame. Although he retired after 40 years as panto dame last year, he wrote and co-directed Sleeping Beauty – and told the York Press that he would love to climb back into his frock.

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Martin said:

  • I don’t think this is over yet at all. I really don’t, and I hope it isn’t.

    My kids who are in their twenties now are so incensed they said, ‘Dad, we will never ever forgive you if you take this lying down’.

A petition to save the pantomime is closing in on 1,000 signatures.

‘Get another conscience’

The York Theatre Royal panto regulars joke about missing Berwick before the start of rehearsals… Photograph: Richard McDougall
Since Friday he has been telling audiences at the end of the panto about the decision not to bring the team back.

“Basically I’m just explaining what’s happened – that it is probably a case where myself, Suzy, David and AJ, these are our final performances – and it’s nothing to do with our decision.”

Asked by Jonathan if the theatre management were happy with this, he said: “They’ll just have to be. Do they want us to go on and not comment at all?”

Theatre boss Tom Bird hasn’t made a public statement about the decision, which comes after a significant fall in panto ticket sales. But he did Tweet out that the theatre was going to be ‘brave’ in 2020.

Martin responded: “That’s not my idea of being brave. Maybe it’s other people’s idea of being brave. It ain’t mine.” Asked what word he would use, he said:

  • I’d say ill-informed. And I’m really having to watch my words here. You listen to your conscience and you go right, I’m going to make this decision. Wait a minute, is this really the right decision, or am I wrong?

    And if your conscience says, no you are absolutely right in this decision then I think you are ill-informed. I think you need to get another conscience.

‘Dunkirk spirit’

Finishes on 25 January: Sleeping Beauty. Photograph: Anthony Robling
Martin said axing the panto was “shooting the goose that lays the golden egg”. And he wondered what could replace the panto: “You’d be curious to see because if you get rid of all of us, you are starting from ground zero again.”

He compared the rapport between the cast to that built up by other long-standing comedy shows.

“I’m a big fan of the Goon Show, Morecame and Wise, Laurel and Hardy – the York Theatre Royal pantomime, to me, is in exactly the same list.”

How were he and the cast pulling together having received the bad news? “I think it’s a bit of the old Dunkirk spirit. You don’t really stop and think about it much. This panto, believe it or not, is absolutely hell for leather.”

And he added: “At the end of the day, you go: ‘Do you know what? I think I was the good guy in this.'”