Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates

Written and directed by Michael Harrison
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(2008)

On the day the show opened, box office takings for the Theatre Royal panto reached a million pounds.

They need to! The production values and the special effects of this show are incredible. There's Titan the Robot - huge and impressively alive with an amazing range of voices; not one but two 3D interludes from Amazing Interactives which really do make you feel that you are in the depths of the scene with the animated characters (or flying rocks!) right in front of you; a number of one-off specials including a Close Encounters-style mothership descending from the flies and a large dinosaur (which kept bumping into the set!); more intelligent lights than I could count, not just onstage but on the pros arch sweeping the audience; a breeches buoy which carried Robinson Crusoe from the Upper Circle to the stage; a range of beautifully designed, constructed and painted sets, and fantastic costumes.

Add in a cast of six plus a chorus of eight, an orchestra of five and, of course, the Babes, and you have a very expensive show indeed.

But all this would all go for naught if the script, the direction and the performers weren't up to scratch. Fortunately writer and director Michael Harrison, MD of Qdos Pantomimes and a local lad himself (he comes from Wallsend), is the real Pantomime King. He knows and loves the genre and so the story, the comedy and the romance, far from being swamped by what could be simply gimmicks, are actually enhanced by the special effects.

He is helped in no small measure by his principals. Father and son comedy team Clive Webb (Captain Crusoe) and Danny Adams (Robinson Crusoe) are well-established Theatre Royal favourites (they'll be back again next year in Cinderella) and they serve up a mixture of slapstick, magic tricks, traditional panto gags ("Busy Bee, Busy Bee, What have you got in the hive for me?" makes what is probably its ten-thousandth appearance!), physical comedy and what I have no doubt are carefully scripted ad-libs and mistakes, which have the audience in stitches.

Chris Hayward's Dame Rita Crusoe (he makes all his own costumes, you know!) is the traditional Dame with a different frock for every appearance. It's no wonder he's thin - some of those changes were very quick! I won't give the game away totally, but watch out for his walk-down head-dress. Brilliant! Another local lad, by the way: he's from Newcastle.

Phil Corbitt (from Cullercoats, so yet more local talent) makes a suitably villainous Blackheart the Pirate and Kathryn Rooney (making her third panto appearance at the Royal) plays the Magical Mermaid alluringly and yet with great innocence. And making a great impression as Girl Friday in her first appearance at the theatre is Natalie Winsor: she has a strong singing voice and great stage presence.

Harrison has achieved a number of difficult balancing acts - between effects and story-telling, between a universal story and a firm local grounding, between comedy, romance and music - and the audience loved it. And so did I!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan