Beauty and the Beast

Ray Spencer and Graeme Thompson
The Customs House
The Customs House, South Shields
to

South Tyneside loves its panto. Over the years (and they are many!) there has always been more buzz and excitement in the Customs House auditorium before the show opens than at any other theatre’s panto I’ve been to, and the audience, adults and kids, are clearly ready and eager to enjoy themselves. Last night, when the houselights went down, scarcely two or three bars of the overture had been played before the audience started clapping along, and from then on, they took every possible opportunity to join in. And I could swear those kids practise shouting at home because they get louder and louder every year!

The early scenes of every panto, of course, are just the build-up to the arrival of the kids’ favourites, the Comic and the Dame, because it’s their arrival which starts all the panto fun. Arbuthnot (David John Hopper) has really endeared himself to them over the last few years, and as for Ray Spencer (Dame Bella Ballcock), he’s been playing panto for longer than many of the kids’ parents have been alive and no one knows better how to work an audience—and get away with some of the filthiest innuendo you have ever heard: “my name is Dame Bella Ballcock. I don’t like Ball but I do like (very slight pause) Bella.”

It’s always a very traditional panto at the Customs House, with essential ingredients such as the take-off and the slosh scenes which are milked for all the hilarity possible, as well as traditional verbal gags. (Sweaty socks anyone?)

In recent years, the Customs House has introduced us to some great animal characters (traditionally known as the “skin part”). There was Chorizo the Pig, Doddington the Cow, Puddles the Dog and this year its Cutlet the Sheep, played with great enthusiasm by Sunderland-born Charlie Raine, one of two newcomers to the cast. She clearly enjoyed playing the part and the audience certainly loved watching her. But then a rapping sheep isn’t something you come across very often, even in panto.

The other newcomer is Beauty herself, Annie Guy, who, in the newest modern tradition of Principal Girls, is sweet, beautiful, a great singer but pretty feisty with it. You get the impression that the happy ever after of Beauty and the Prince is, to an extent, dependent on his recognising who is boss in that household.

Disney it isn’t—and thank goodness for that. Although the romance is important, the focus is on the comedy and providing laughs are not just Hopper and Spencer but also Gareth Hunter’s Duke du Pommefrites, Georgia Nicholson’s Hortensia (the Housekeeper) and even Afnan Ifthakhar’s villainous Gaviscon (what an almost indigestible pun!) who for some reason hails from Scotland. In fact, this nasty huntsman is so funny that the kids sometimes forgot to boo him!

Even our ever so good enchantress, played by Eleanor Chaganis, gets her share of the laughs.

The only one who doesn’t is The Beast / Prince, played by Customs House panto stalwart Steven Lee Hamilton, but then he couldn’t be funny as the Beast and he does have to make up for it afterwards, didn’t he?

There’s lots of music, too, much of it taken from The Greatest Showman, and there is “Baby Shark”. This is my second panto and the second time this song has made an appearance. I expect to hear it again. And again. And… There’s always one, the song whose time has come and this has all the hallmarks of the community song of choice for this panto season.

My criticism—my only criticism—of the show is that there are too many songs. That is not, I hasten to add, any reflection at all on the singers for, as always, the standard of performance is very high. But the show is three hours long, including the interval, which is a bit long for some of the younger members of the audience and they do tend to lose interest a bit in the more romantic songs. We know the run time will shorten as the show speeds up over time but losing a couple of the songs would definitely help.

Stunning as ever, the costume and set creative team of Paul Shriek and Matt Fox excel themselves, and their work is well supported by Robin Bainbridge’s lighting design.

The girls of the South Tyneside Dance Workshop, choreographed as always by Jacqui West, perform with a confidence which belies their years.

Another typical Customs House panto with jokes a-plenty and enough innuendo to please the adults. And I can tell you this: those adults are as noisy as the kids!

Peter Lathan