Ray Spencer and Graeme Thompson
Customs House, South Shields

Aladdin at Customs House

The Customs House panto calls itself “the little panto with the big heart” to distinguish itself from the hugely expensive, high tech productions from the likes of Qdos and First Family Entertainment. It’s produced entirely in house using local—well, North East—talent and many of the cast return year after year. As indeed do the audience, often in the same seats on the same nights! And their delight in the myriad local references is palpable.

It’s also a traditional panto in the very best sense: jokes galore, many on their annual outing from the Old Jokes’ Home; loads of slapstick—if Ray Spencer, here playing Tommy Wishee Washee, didn’t get bashed around, covered in gunge or squashed flat, the audience would feel it had been cheated; silly songs (now that’s something a lot of modern pantos seem to have dropped, to their detriment); lots of ad-libbing and making the most of any mistakes. No trying to cover up here—make a joke (or jokes) of it! There are times, indeed, when I suspect Bob Stott (Widow Dotty Twankey) deliberately gets things wrong, not only for the laugh but also to put Spencer on the spot!

But there were some changes this year. The tech side has stepped up a notch or two with an impressive array of moving lights and some baffling illusions from Amethyst Magic. The set, too, is more sumptuous than ever before, thanks to design by Paul Shriek who, as last year, also created the bright cartoon-like costumes.

In addition to Spencer and Stott as the perennial Comic and Dame, Peter Darrant yet again takes great delight in being villainous as Abanazar and Graham Overton plays the bumbling Sultan Sanddancer (for those outside of the region, a Sand Dancer is a person from South Shields), so quite why he was given a French accent is far from clear! Admittedly the Peking of the traditional Aladdin is an odd mixture of Chinese and Arabian but the setting for the Customs House panto is always Cooksonville, a nod in the direction of South Tyneside’s most famous literary figure, so where the French connection (yes, pun intended) comes in is something of a puzzle.

Steven Lee Hamilton returns to play a cheeky Aladdin after an absence of a few years during which he has toured the UK in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the US in a number of shows, and, returning after playing the Enchantress in Puss and Boots last year, is Alice Brown in that most thankless of panto roles, the principal girl who is expected to do no more than look beautiful and sing well, which Ms Brown does with ease.

Afnan Iftikhar, who played principal boy in Sleeping Beauty two years ago, takes on a rather comic Genie and Iain Cunningham and Ryan Lynch play the somewhat underused the Chinese Policemen

There is one new panto cast member this year, Christina Berriman-Dawson as the Slave of the Ring, but she is no stranger to either panto or the Customs House, and gives the part much more fire and feistiness than usual, although she too was given an odd accent. A Welsh Slave of the Ring?

But as always it’s the comedy which lies at the centre of a Customs House panto and it has to be said that it seemed to take longer to arrive than usual. The opening—which had the feel of a musical entr’acte—although impressively realised both technically and in performance, felt too long, but once the comedy started, the show took off and we were back in the hilarious, traditional “little panto with the big heart.” And that’s what the audience—and this reviewer—loves!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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