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Play for laughs: what’s the appeal of panto?

It’s daft, childish and the stories are as old as the hills, so why do people return to the pantomime year after year? York Theatre Royal’s pantomime scriptwriter, director and long-serving dame Berwick Kaler reckons he knows the answer.

“People come through the door and they know for the next couple of hours they’re going to have a laugh,” says Kaler. “We don’t put anything in to upset them and it’s their chance to be kids again. Panto is written for the child within us all.”

There is evidence that laughter has health-giving properties and Kaler agrees that going to the panto is about relaxing and enjoying yourself. Onstage in the role of dame for the 38th time, Kaler this year portrays an ugly sister in Cinderella, the fifth time he’s been in the play.

“I may tell the audience at the beginning of the show that what they’re coming to see is rubbish – but it’s not, it takes a lot of hard work to get the show together.” He adds that the costumes and sets are created afresh each year.

Keeping things current is vital and this year’s production features a parody of James Corden’s ‘carpool karaoke’. Kaler and singer Suzi Quatro filmed a sequence around York, to heckles and laughter from the locals.

Kaler modestly says he gets “treated well” by local fans, although he’s clearly a bit of a celebrity. He recalls the time a woman and her family came to see him after a show to “thank him for the laughs” over the years, just days before she died of terminal cancer. “It was then I realised how much this silly thing that we put on every year really means to people,” he says.

It is his own health that he has to keep an eye on this year when he gets back onstage following a scare this summer.

“I was feeling a bit dizzy so I went to the doctor and was sent straight to hospital. My heart was blocked and I was so lucky I went when I did,” he says. “I had to have a pacemaker fitted the next morning.” Although the device was fitted to regulate his heartbeat, he was soon as energetic as ever. “Half an hour later I felt great, I could’ve skipped down the ward – if they’d let me,” he adds.

Kaler says he is looking forward to getting the gang together for this year’s show, which is sponsored by Benenden. Suzy Cooper, a veteran of 22 York pantos plays Cinders, David Leonard is the villain once more but this year Martin Barrass, who has played Kaler’s son for around 30 years, will be sorely missed.

Barrass is recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, Kaler says. “We both nearly died within three weeks of each other,” he exclaims, clearly taken aback by the cruel coincidence.

These health scares have reminded Kaler what’s important in life and he says that he will not be flying or throwing himself around the stage this year. “Even the audience are telling me ‘you don’t have to break your neck to make us laugh Berwick’.”

Cinderella, sponsored by Benenden, is at the York Theatre Royal from Thursday 8 December to Saturday 28 January 2017. Book tickets here.

See local theatre listings for your nearest panto.

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