Babes in the Wood

The Customs House, South Shields

Large theatres can afford to have a large cast and chorus in their pantomimes. So can amateurs, who want to give as many members parts as possible. But what can the small professional company do? How can they afford the kind of cast and chorus which we have come to expect in panto?

The Customs House in South Shields, in the north east of England, has a seating capacity of around 400, and so the spectacular pantos of the larger theatres of the area, such as the 1600-seater Empire in Sunderland, are beyond it. Nonetheless, this year it managed to produce the best reviewed panto in the area, using a judicious mixure of professionals, semi-pros and amateurs.

Director and comic lead is Ray Spencer, who leads a triple life as children's entertainer Tommy the Trumpeter, actor and director, and lecturer in the Performing Arts at South Tyneside College, although he is about to leave the latter behind to take over as director of the Customs House in the new year. His comic sidekick, Dame Dotty, is played by Bob Stott, a veteran of many pantos, who in real life is a management consultant.

The wicked Sheriff of Nottingham is played by stand-up comedian and controversial late-night radio talkshow host Mike Elliott, and his sidekick is Middlesborough-based actor Jack McBride, another pro.

The principal boy, Robin Hood, is played by another professional, Patricia L Haws, whilst Maid Marian is Shireen Hamlani, a senior staff nurse at Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary, who has eleven years experience of playing for operatic societies throughout the North East.

Then there are the Merry Men - Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet, and more - all played with remarkable energy and ingenuity by Graham Overton, another professional Shields-born actor.

The rest are children: two Jacks and two Jills, and a chorus made up of children and young people from the South Tyneside Dance Workshop, which is based at the Customs House.

There's a remarkably intimate feel about this show, partially due to the smallness of the auditorium, but mainly because the two comics really engage with the audience. All too often nowadays, pantomime clowns and dames, cast because of their "names" rather than any real ability to play the parts, talk at the audience, but Ray Spencer and Bob Stott really make you feel they're talking to you, and if they fluff a line (which is not difficult to do occasionally in the quick-fire dialogue), there's no attempt to cover it up: rather they invite the audience to laugh with them at themselves. To be honest, on the few occasions this happened, I wasn't at all sure that it wasn't deliberate!

There are no spectacular special effects: for a start, the stage is too small and, in any case, they are too expensive. The emphasis here is firmly on the traditional pantomime ingredients of music and dance, splapstick comedy and romance, and getting the audience to join in - cheering the hero, booing the villain, singing along, shouting out warnings, and being in the comic's "gang".

Too many pantos in the big theatres are given over to special effects, big-name performers (usually soap stars, pop stars, or even sportsmen) and speciality acts. They can turn into variety shows with a thread of plot running through them. The Customs House show remains true to the traditional form. The audience knows it and they come prepared. They brought little flags to wave, party hats, swords to brandish at the villains... It is a true popular, audience-involving entertainment, and as a result it is affordable as well as entertaining

Many of the bigger pantos have almost priced themselves out of the market: it's quite possible for a family of four to have little change left out of

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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