North East theatre in 2017 – a review

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 2nd January, 2018

An explosion of pantomimes

Every year, most of the region’s theatres put on their own panto, or, in most cases, import a panto or a children’s / family show, and this year there were 19 professional pantos in the region and 12 kids’ shows. There were five pantos in Newcastle / Gateshead, in addition to one family and one children’s show at Northern Stage, a family dance piece at Dance City, and The Sage’s regular showing of the animated film The Snowman, with the score performed live by the Royal Northern Sinfonia.

The Theatre Royal’s offering, of course, is not only long-established but is also the most successful in terms of audience numbers in the region, breaking box office records year after year. The Tyne Theatre and Opera House, too, has had a long-running and successful panto while, for some years now, across the river in Gateshead Nice Swan has been producing a popular show based in Whickham Comprehensive School, which had actually nothing to do with the school—NS merely hired the sports hall for the show.

Last year, however, the agreement between Newcastle Panto Company and the Tyne Theatre expired and, for whatever reason, was not renewed, the theatre deciding to mount its own show. So NPC moved across the river to perform in the Gateshead International Stadium. This may have seemed to be a direct challenge to Nice Swan but they too were on the move—into Newcastle, where they arranged for a portable building, the Pantodrome, to be set up in Times Square, just one Metro stop from the Theatre Royal and an easy walk to the Tyne Theatre.

Meanwhile, a newcomer to the NE’s panto business set up shop in NE6 Suite in Walker, slightly north east of the city centre.

Then along the Tyne in North Shields, another panto made its debut, this one at The Exchange, a venue which, to the best of my knowledge, has never hosted a panto before. And that was not all that far from the well-established panto at Playhouse Whitley Bay.

Elsewhere—in Northumberland, South Tyneside, Sunderland, County Durham and on Teesside—things continued as always but in Newcastle / Gateshead competition was fierce. I suspect that this was an over-abundance of pantos and it will be interesting to see how box office receipts have been affected. However we already know that Peter Pan at the Theatre Royal sold more than £1m worth of tickets, setting yet another record.

We do know that the Nice Swan show at the Pantodrome was beset with problems, opening late and losing its star and closing early because of problems over pay.

Actually, two other pantos had technical problems which delayed their openings, the Gala and Darlington Hippodrome. Sunderland Empire, although it did not cancel any shows, did delay its press night because one if its stars had laryngitis and had to be replaced by an understudy.

Finally, I am frequently asked why we don’t have a Best Panto in our Best of the NE listing. It’s because it is very difficult to compare pantos; all the best ones are specifically created for their audience. The writers and directors know what appeals to them and that’s what they give them. It’s not simply a case of “localising” a generic show but of putting the audience at the centre of its creation. That’s why having the same creative team (and often performers) year after year makes for a successful panto.

The shows I saw this year were good, all of them, but two were outstanding, The Lambton Worm at the Customs House in South Shields and Robinson Crusoe at the Gala, Durham. They were specifically tailored for their regular patrons and, frankly, if you swapped them round, they wouldn’t work so well. They would be enjoyed but there would not be that feeling of “this is ours!” which enthuses the audience and infects the cast. Ray Spencer at the Customs House and Neil Armstrong and Paul Hartley at the Gala know their audiences intimately (oo no, not like that, missus!) and it is exactly the same with Michael Harrison of Qdos Pantomimes at the Theatre Royal.

That’s why, when I review a panto, I try to isolate what is central to it, what makes it different to the others, for that is what makes it special for its particular audience. So, no Best Panto listing. Sorry!

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