Ray Spencer and Graeme Thompson
Customs House, South Shields
The first thing to say about Cinderella at the Customs House is that it is visually sumptuous. The set and costumes (by Paul Shriek) have got better every year and this year he has excelled himself, especially when Cinderella's (already pretty glamorous) rags transform—as if by magic!—into her ball gown before our very eyes.
The second is that in Luke Maddison the theatre has a new panto star. As Buttons he captures entirely the character's vulnerability, which he uses to great comic effect, and quickly establishes that easy relationship with the audience which is so essential to success in the role. He also has the physical prowess to handle pratfalls very convincingly!
Also very impressive is Jamie Birkett as the villainous Baroness. A tall, slim figure in black and orange, she has a threatening presence and a contempt for everyone (apart from her dear daughters, of course), but especially for the audience who loved to hate her right from the start. In appearance she is reminiscent of Disney villainesses such as the evil Queen in Snow White (with more than a touch of Cruella de Ville).
In her professional debut and first panto performance Natasha Magee does all that can be desired of a principal girl. She is very attractive, sings and moves well, and makes an appealing Cinders. She is well complemented by Steven Lee Hamilton in his fifth panto at the venue. Handsome and dashing, with a great singing voice, his Prince Charming is everything he should be—and he managed to pull off, with great aplomb, the worst visual gag of the show!
He is ably supported by Charlie Younger as Dandini. She has the panto girl-playing-a-boy style down to a T and so shone in a role which is often (too often?) subordinate to "his" boss.
Louise Elliott gave us an appealingly maternal without being matronly Scottish Fairy Godmother, with just a touch of giggly dizziness, and Paul Dunn (Bashit) and Will Graham (Wreckit) ably provide the kind of knockabout comedy usually given to the Broker's Men—and, in fact, their characters are a development of that traditional duo.
And what of the Uglies? They are played by Craig Richardson (Dioria—pronounce the first syllable as in Diane) and Stephen Sullivan (Constipationi—an Italian name, clearly) and their over-the-top grotesqueness had the audience howling.
Completing the cast, the girls of the South Tyneside Dance Workshop give their usual energetic and perfectly drilled support.
As ever at the Customs House, it's a very traditional panto with all the expected ingredients, except this year it is without the 30+ year partnership of Dame Dotty (Bob Stott) and her daft son Tommy (Ray Spencer who does, however, direct) who have retired gracefully—if that is the right word for those creators of panto mayhem! At the same time two other regular cast members, villain Peter Darrant and jack of all trades Graham Overton, have also stepped down, so inevitably the many Customs House panto fans wondered how their absence would affect the show.
The answer is that it is very different. This is much more of an ensemble production, giving everyone the chance to shine. There is also more music than in the past: a little too much in the first act, I felt, so that the show was a little slow to get going but it is all well performed.
It's essentially a new venture, a massive change from what we have seen in the past, but it certainly satisfied the enthusiastic and noisy audience, adults and children alike! And it has to be said that the Customs House panto audience has the most vocal adults I have ever come across!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan