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

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.

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.'”

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

  1. I have been to every one of Berwick Kalers’ pantomimes at York Theatre. This year we went with a little trepidation but were very pleasantly surprised. David Leonard was magnificent ,as always, and Suzy Cooper and AJ were great. We really enjoyed the whole event but the ticket prices are too high. I think it should be given another chance but, as with everything in life, this is about money. Shame on the Thearte Royal Management. This panto was a real family, the audience and the actors.

  2. We have been coming to the panto for many years and it has delighted four generations of our family. First and foremost, however, it was the ‘Berwick Kaler Show’ and, sad as it is to see it go, without him its time has come and, like its creator, it should retire gracefully. Sadly, because he wrote and co-directed this last one, his presence hovered like the ghost at the feast. It was Hamlet without the
    Berwick deserves his retirement and the panto deserves its. It has become self-regarding of late, trading too much on the in-jokes and interplay of a small core of undeniably talented actors who relied upon well-worn perceptions of their own characters. Comforting as an old coat for both cast and audience, it freely admitted to being ‘the same old rubbish’. Yes, we may be reluctant to concede that the much loved ‘coat’ that has kept us warm for over forty years is now beginning to look threadbare and unfashionable, but the truth must be faced.
    It is time to savour the memories, but also to move on. No need to make a ‘brave’ fashion choice – just choose something brighter, fresher and different.
    And, as a last economic word of Yorkshire wisdom to the executive director – if you get ten customers prepared to pay a pound, it brings in more revenue than only five who can afford thirty bob!

  3. My family and I have been coming to the pantomime for 30 years and have thoroughly enjoyed the productions. This year was poor and not very funny despite all the efforts of the cast. It is time for a change and I feel the theatre is making the correct decision. When we attended there were very few children in the audience as the current pantomime format is not suitable for them. Looking forward to seeing what direction the next pantomime will take.

  4. I would like to think the wonderful York Theatre Royal Panto crew for all they have given the audience over a long number of years. They have provided much needed laughter and a very special “family”, including to my Dad who attended last year with terminal mesothelioma.
    Given that the Panto brings in about 1/2 the income to the theatre and encourages people to see other things throughout the year I feel the very new Senior management should think very carefully about this. I am not sure we are ready to see the “something bold” that caused such problems at the Globe in London and preceded Tom Bird’s move from the Globe to York along with the departure of severe Senior mangers at York Theatre. You couldn’t write a Panto with such a plot and expect the audience to believe it was not planned !!!!

  5. York pantomime has been as big a part of Christmas as Christmas Day. As a family we are gutted for Martin and all the team. What a shock to hear that news less than a week after we enjoyed the show. It makes me angry that new bosses can just come in and pull the rug out.We will follow the original cast wherever the perform next years pantomime. If they are not at theatre royal then neither will our family.

  6. I’m very sad to hear of the potential demise of the York Panto with the usual team. We’ve been coming for years and it is tradition in our house to go to York in January for the usual ‘rubbish’. I do hope that they change their mind about this. i saw a brief interview with some Theatre Exec on Look North last night and he was saying that ticket sales which had been 55,000 or so over the season had dropped to 30,000 or so which was not sustainable. I would imagine that a bid reason for this is the SIGNIFICANT hike in ticket prices this year – given the news, i imagine that this was a strategic move to make the decision to axe the show more palatable. Its all money, money money. For goodness sake, keep the tradition going.

  7. We’ve loved every panto we’ve seen since 1977 and will follow the original cast wherever they end up performing. Huge mistake to make this decision. I’m sure all their loyal followers will do the same.

  8. Gutted for Martin and cast. New management, new broom ___ seen it all before. Remember what happened a t Hull truck!! Typical.

  9. I’ve been to 37 of these Pantos and I’ve grown with the cast. They are like family. YTR Lower the ticket prices and show loyalty to a cast that has kept you afloat.

  10. I was taken to the panto as a birthday treat as a child and later my father was house manager at the theatre. He would be distraught to know it has been axed.

  11. I think the ticket prices have been hiked too high-I suppose someone has to pay for all the renovations and it is usually the paying customers. This is a unique panto and needs to be saved, with or without Berwick Kaler

  12. Unless I’ve misread things, have they actually said there won’t be a pantomime this year? By saying a ‘new direction’ maybe they just mean they want to inject some new blood to the show rather than staying with the same cast/writers/directors etc.

  13. Prices for our our party to visit the panto this year are increased significantly and I wonder what this hike has had on audience attendances ?
    If the attendance figures are down then Theatre Royal need to address his matter urgently. The panto is a significant revenue puller and the strength of the current cast are paramount for the future of our festive time entertainment. Why stop it ?

  14. Definitely time to move on. I think it was a mistake to continue in 2019/20 with the old formula minus Berwick in the key role. It was good opportunity to introduce something new to the YTR audiences. There is so much talent out there that could be used.

  15. Keep the panto & wonderful cast, just lower the ticket prices. Christmas won’t be Christmas without our Brilliant panto & panto FAMILY!!!!!!!!!

  16. Move on with Panto Go to Hull with the same cast. Will not come back next year to York.No point in bringing 7 people from the DERBYSHIRE DALES. Hull is a great city good value for money .Will come if the Pantomime is at the Hull Truck , for exampleE

  17. They cant axe our panto
    We attended this year and the cast did a wonderful job without berwick
    Please save our panto we look foward to this every year

  18. It’s heartbreaking! I cannot understand it it’s been a tradition of our family to go every year and it’s just terrible and what a way to find out! Disgraceful behaviour and I am still in shock and angry. All I can say is that we have LOVED this panto and the cast are first class and York treasures!

  19. Unfortunately Berwick was, like it or not, the linchpin in the panto and now he has gone that era is over and it is right to re-think the future. Berwick was right to finish as some of the sparkle and fun was beginning to go. Tom Bird is right in being brave and facing a new era. I can’t wait to see his plans for the future.

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