Puss in Boots
Ray Spencer and Graeme Thompson
Customs House, South Shields
The "little panto with the big heart" has had a visual make-over. Always a traditional show, The Customs House's panto has always concentrated on performances and script but this year, without abandoning the tradition, has made a huge leap forward in terms of design.
The set, designed by Geoff Ramm, is glitzier than ever and James Henshaw's lighting has raised the bar even further - 35 moving lights, 305 cues and over 800 DMX channels, he tells me - so that the show now looks more like something from a 1000-seater theatre than a 400.
And the costumes are simply stunning. The designer here is Paul Shriek who has moved from selling his collection in a concession in Top Shop after he graduated in the eighties to designing for Welsh National Opera, Scottish Dance Theatre and balletLORENT. The theatre took the bold step of inviting sponsorship from local businesses with the incentive of having a Dame's dress designed specially for them. In addition to the usual sponsor Hays Travel, Go Warm, BT South Tyneside, Colmans Fish and Chips, the Shields Gazette and Potts Printing all took up the offer and Dame Dotty (Customs House regular panto performer Bob Stott) appeared in a series of hugely imaginative frocks which brought howls of laughter (and appreciation) from the audience.
It wasn't just the Dame's costumes: everyone from Loreal the Enchantress to Puss himself looked magnificent.
But all this would go for nothing if the performances weren't up to scratch. However, in the capable hands of the usual Customs House panto quartet - Ray Spencer as Tommy, Bob Stott, villainous Peter Darrant as Osborne the Ogre and Graham Overton as King Boris (looking remarkably like Boris of London) - the usual comic mayhem (and not a little innuendo which flies right over the children's heads) is there in full measure.
They are ably supported by Lucy Rafton as a very feisty Princess Cheryl, Afnan Iftikhar as her love interest Much the Miller's son, Alice Brown in a strong performance as the Enchantress, a new to the theatre comedy duo of Craig Richardson and Ryan Lynch as Cammy and Cleggy, and, of course, the girls of the South Tyneside Dance Workshop.
As I have mentioned on many occasions, the Customs House panto is very much a South Tyneside family occasion, and that means an occasion for South Tyneside families (who book the same seats on the same nights year after year) and South Tyneside as a family. The atmosphere is fantastic with everyone, kids and adults alike, clearly out to enjoy themselves. Enjoy themselves they certainly did and even the three inches of snow which fell during the performance making the road outside treacherous and delaying taxies and mini-buses didn't dampen their enthusiasm.
Puss in Boots is not the best known of pantos. It fell out of favour about fifty years ago and has rarely been seen since but in the hands of writers Ray Spencer and Graeme Thompson it has all the necessary ingredients to make yet another fun-filled success for the Customs House.
Running until 8th January
Reviewer: Peter Lathan