Meet York’s panto stars: Jonathan Race and AJ Powell

Hapless AJ and wicked Jonathan double up in last year's panto, Robin Hood And His Merry Mam
Hapless AJ and wicked Jonathan double up in last year's panto, Robin Hood And His Merry Mam
Hapless AJ and wicked Jonathan double up in last year’s panto, Robin Hood And His Merry Mam

In a world of flux, Berwick Kaler’s York Theatre Royal pantomime has become a seasonal tradition as warming as a glass of mulled wine, a treat that draws people from far beyond our city walls to come and hear that familiar Mackem twang.

Entering its 35th year with Aladdin And The Twankeys, the Theatre Royal show offers something very different from the soap stars and pop songs panto model.

The audience has a connection to the show and its performers become part of their extended Christmas family. Many of us have grown up with Suzy Cooper, Martin Barrass and of course Berwick.

AJ Powell and Jonathan Race are the leaders of the new generation of actors, and the gang’s newcomers.

“It’s strange, I do get people coming up to me in the street, asking me to do my catchphrase,” says enthusiastic AJ, who has emerged as one of the best-loved characters of the show with that catchphrase, “I think you’re lovely” delivered in best Brummie.

“I just started in the chorus which I did for a few years, until one day Buttons was held up in London. So about three hours before show time, Berwick told me I was going to be playing that role.

“I learnt the first act before the show and was allowed the script in the second half.

“It all just grew year on year from that night really,” he says, now in his eighth panto and playing the genie in Aladdin And The Twankeys.

Jonathan Race had a hard act to follow, replacing established baddie David Leonard last year. “I suppose it was intimidating, but then the audience were so kind to me,” he said.

“They have so much energy it makes you perform better.

“Last year because Berwick didn’t know me, he wrote a good, but straight villain. This year is great because he has been able to put personal touches in.”

AJ looks on as Berwick does something with a giant Newcastle Brown Ale bottle and Martin Barrass. Photographs: Robert Day / York Theatre Royal
AJ looks on as Berwick does something with a giant Newcastle Brown Ale bottle and Martin Barrass during panto rehearsals. Photographs: Robert Day / York Theatre Royal
Jonathan in full baddie mode
Jonathan in full baddie mode

As writer, king-maker, co-director and dame, this is indisputably Berwick’s show. “It’s his baby… he want’s it to be perfect,” says AJ.

So is he a fearsome boss?

“Everyone always asks whether he’s a diva. Especially cabbies. I’ve got no idea why. He knows what he wants, but all our rehearsals are 90% taking the mick. He’s great to work with.”

“Occasionally you might disagree over the odd line, which maybe you thought was funny,” adds Jonathan.

“But then he completely understands the audience and knows how the shows rhythm is going to go.”

The actors demonstrate a genuine reverence for Berwick and what he has created at York. “Some people may not realise, but so much detail goes into the script,” Jonathan says.

“He really sticks to the stories of traditional pantomimes, which most others don’t.”

“This years Aladdin has two genies, which is what the original telling of the story had,” AJ adds.

Both say they look forward to the panto each winter and give the indication that they would take part for as long as they were asked. They know they are part of something special.

York is “a home away from home” for Nottingham dweller Jonathan and AJ loves “New Year’s Eve at the Minster, when everyone is in a fantastic mood and chatting to each other”.

When asked if they could give us any hints of what to expect AJ says “there are a lot of Eighties references as Berwick loves it,” says AJ, before adding “there’s something for everyone, whether you’re five or 90”.

Verging on cliché, true, but indisputably true given that the show’s reputation has never faltered. And as long as Berwick is pulling the strings, backed up by a cluster of talented actors, it will be as much a part of York’s Christmas as panic buying on Coney Street.