Ray Spencer and Graeme Thompson
Customs House, South Shields
Panto is a wonderful thing: it can work equally well as a hugely spectacular production with a large cast (not of thousands, perhaps, although in the nineteenth century casts often ran into the hundreds) or as a small-scale, small cast show. For me this was conclusively proved this week when, after seeing Newcastle Theatre Royal's spectacular Cinderella on Thursday, I went on Friday to the Customs House in South Shields to see Sleeping Beauty.
The Customs House panto advertises itself as "the little panto with the big heart" and if that means it establishes a huge rapport between cast and audience, Sleeping Beauty has that heart in spades! We are all used to seeing children carried away by panto excitement, screaming and shouting at the tops of their voices, but when men in their forties (or thereabouts) behaving in the same way, even to jumping up and down in their seats, you know you have a show that is something special. So it was on Friday: the shrill sopranos of the children were almost drowned out by the tenors and basses!
It's partly because, in the last fifteen years, the Customs House panto has become an integral part of the life of South Tyneside but it's also because - and this is also part of the reason for it becoming so - the 30+ year partnership of Ray Spencer as Tommy and Bob Stott as Dame Dotty are almost part of the fabric of South Tyneside life. Spencer runs onto the stage in the early moments of the show and the roof lifts with the cheers and when Stott enters, the audience roar with laughter. They don't really need to do or say anything: they just need to be there.
But of course they do and say an awful lot and they are the bedrock of the show. Their chats with the audience feel totally off-the-cuff and their routines, although obviously rehearsed, have that Tommy Cooper-like roughness which (when done properly as here) is hilarious. They are supported by two other regulars, Graham Overton as King Street and Peter Darrant as the evil Chancellor Lord Darling, both loved (or, in the case of the latter, hated) by the audience for a number of years.
Otherwise this is a young cast. The deliciously evil Fairy Narcissis is played by Helen Embleton who, although in her early twenties, is already an established and highly regarded actress in the region and Lucy Rafton (Princess Primrose of Jarra) is making her second panto appearance at the Customs House, but the rest are making their professional debuts and making a very good job of it.
As always, this is a very traditional panto, with all the traditional ingredients - eggs falling on heads, slosh scene, plate breaking, much audience interaction, take-off scene, bad (and some good!) jokes, romance and magic - which move along at a cracking pace. This year there is some modern technology - a small animatronic dragon and a huge one which breathes fire - but as always director Spencer relies mainly on the performances of his cast and the script to carry the show, and neither he nor we the audience are disappointed. Appealing to the youngest and the oldest, this panto is yet another success for the Customs House.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan