Jack and the Beanstalk

Ray Spencer and Graeme Thompson

The Customs House

The Customs House, South Shields

From 29 November 2016 to 07 January 2017

Review by Peter Lathan

My second panto of the season and the second Jack and the Beanstalk, providing a clear example of how it’s possible to tell the same story in two completely different ways but entertain your audience equally as much.

The panto at the Customs House is always very traditional: the characters, the scenes (and even the sequence of the scenes), the chats to the audience from the Principal Boy, Principal Girl, Comic and Dame, the slosh scene, the take-off scene, the songs both comic and romantic—and the jokes.

“Why are the step-ladders here?” asks the Comic.

“Because your real ladders left when you were a baby,” the Dame answers.

Ouch!

“I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” the Principal Girl cries.

And quick as a flash the Villain replies, “And three hates are 24.”

(And no, I never got that one either. But it’s traditional. Oh yes, it’s definitely traditional.)

The Customs House panto is always packed with such gems, coming quick and fast, and they are hilarious. Old, perhaps. Groan-worthy, probably. But funny, very funny. Definitely. And the cast—especially Ray Spencer, Dame of this parish—will seize on any excuse to get a laugh, even if it’s making the most of a mistake or an accident. This year’s slosh scene—they’re making ice cream; just imagine!—made the floor very slippery. Cue much accidental hilarity!

Of course there are opportunities galore for the kids of every age (and boy, can those grown-up kids make a lot of noise!) to join in. Oh yes there are! (Sorry, no more traditional jokes from me. Honest.)

No panto would be complete without contemporary references and the arrival on stage of three Pokémon characters got the kids really excited, as did the singing of "Pineapple, pen, apple, pen" which, although a total mystery to this aging critic, had them thoroughly enjoying themselves.

It’s very localised. Place names give rise to much humour. Posh people live in Cleadon (or Cleading, to say it poshly) whereas a place to be avoided like the plague is Pennywell, an estate in neighbouring Sunderland.

And it’s self-referential. One of the cloths features a small picture of children’s entertainer Tommy the Trumpeter, a former alter-ego of Ray Spencer. I’m sure every adult in the audience was wondering, like me, what was going to be made of that. And then, late in the day, it came: “my, he’s let himself go recently.” Huge roars of laughter, which indicates the way the audience feel about the Customs House panto—there really is a panto family feeling and audiences keep coming back and back.

Mention of the cloths brings one of the great strengths of the Customs House panto to the fore: the set and costume design. For the seventh year running, the team of Paul Shriek (designer) and Matt Fox (digital fabric design and realisation) have produced designs which are intricate, detailed, imaginative, colourful—and works of art in their own right.

And that giant’s hand! No more. I don’t want to give it away. But… wow!

A special mention, though, for the insect-like costumes for the girls from the South Tyneside Dance Workshop in their scenes as henchmen of the dastardly Fleshcreep. They were brilliantly creepy. As, actually, were the girls.

One of Ray Spencer’s strengths as a panto director is his ability to recognise panto talent and develop it. This year’s cast is particularly strong. New to the Customs House stage is David John Hopper who plays Arbuthnot, Jack’s ne’er-do-well brother. He not only proves to have considerable comic talent but also has an easy way with the audience, effortlessly getting them on his side.

Also new, at least to the panto, is Eleanor Chaganis as Fairy Arachis. She has a lovely singing voice and is a fairy with a bit of bite. She may, as she admits, have only just graduated from fairy school but she’s definitely got what it takes to defeat Fleshcreep. We never doubted her for a minute!

Steven Lee Hamilton is an old hand as far as Customs House pantos are concerned but (I believe) this is the first time he has played Villain and his Fleshcreep is deliciously creepy and, yes, even slimy. Really shudder-inducing!

Both the Principal Girl, Eloise (Natasha Haws), who has such a beautiful singing voice, and the Principal Boy, Jack (Luke Maddison), who revealed some unexpected gymnastic skills, are regulars, as is Gareth Hunter who, as the Mayor of Cooksonville, found all the humour in a part which is usually just a stooge for the Dame.

And of course Ray Spencer is the Dame. With more than thirty years’ experience of panto, there’s not much he doesn’t know about the genre—and it shows. He really does have the audience in the palm of his hand. They may be waiting for the next ad lib, the next innuendo (which goes way over the heads of the kids), the next forgetting of a line, but whatever it is, they know he’ll make them roar with laughter.

And they keep coming back, year after year. That, I think, says it all!