Written and directed by Ray Spencer
Customs House, South Shields
In 1975 Bob Stott and Ray Spencer appeared together in Aladdin for South Shields amateur group The Westovians. Thirty years later they're still playing Widow Twankey and her daft son Wishy Washy and they've promised that next time they'll get it right.
Actually they have got it right for many years, so much so that in June this year the Newcastle Journal made the Customs House panto number 37 in the top 100 reasons why "It's Great up North". And this Aladdin doesn't disappoint. With a cast of ten, plus nine girls from the South Tyneside Dance Wokshop, it's big for a mid-scale theatre's home-grown panto (and there seem to be fewer and fewer of them every year as the specialist panto producers take over) and while it doesn't have the extravagant and complex sets of the biggies, it more than makes up for it with the fun and sheer enjoyment it gives to the audience.
Stott, Spencer and the audience have been working together for so long that a raised eyebrow or a quizzical look can elicit gales of laughter, normally for jokes which the kids wouldn't have understood anyway, even if they were actually told! That, of course, is one of the secrets of the best pantomimes - a complicity between the cast and the audience. Couple that with a mixture of knockabout humour for the kids, a vein of something a bit more risqué for the adults, music and dance, good-looking juvenile leads, a really villainous villain and not a little magic, and you have a great panto.
Bravely the first night was also the press night: bravely because, as everyone who has ever had anything to do with pantos knows, on the first night things will go wrong - and some of them ought to be kept in! One such was Ray Spencer's very large bottom (not his own - a false one) in his chef's costume, which began to slip downwards in the "Let's sing a song to keep our spirits up" scene. As a visual gag it couldn't have been bettered and it and his saying to a member of the audience, "You know what it's like, pet, don't you? Once you're past forty everything drops" should definitely be there for the rest of the run!
What didn't go wrong was the levitation/vanishing trick which Abanazar (Peter Darrant) does on the Princess (Rosie Winter). A nice piece of real magic which drew "oos" and "ahs" from the kids - and not a few parents. Darrant makes a great villain and his opponent, an unusually tarty, Cumbrian-accented Spirit of the Ring (Jackie Fielding, best known as the director of rather gritty plays) made a great foil for him.
Graham Overton's Genie sounded as if he had escaped from Guys and Dolls or even a Mickey Spillane novel - a highly unsual approach which was very funny. And that's one of the joys of the home-produced pantos: whereas the biggies often cast a "personality" or "celebrity" in the part, shows like this one use real actors, and it pays off handsomely.
David Ducasse and Rosie Winter, as Aladdin and the Princess, provide the romance. Principal Boy and Girl are probably the least rewarding parts in panto as, often, their scenes are the ones in which the kids in the audience lose interest. To Ducasse and Winter's great credit nothing like this happened, although it has to be said that the filmed magic carpet ride during their big duet was witty and clever enough to hold even the youngest members of the audience's interest.
Supporting were a solid David Redcliff (who proved to be a dab hand at playing the spoons!) as the Emperor and Chinese Policemen Iain Cunningham and Wayne Miller, whose funny walks and total policing incompetence kept the laughs coming.
The youngsters of the Dance Workshop (five teenagers and four younger) delighted the audience with their energetic and often quite athletic dance routines, and mention definitely must be made of Linda Stothard's bright costumes, possibly the best I have seen at the Customs House.
I have another two pantos to see in the next ten days or so. If they both reach the same standard, I'll be a happy reviewer!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan