Neil Armstrong and Paul Hartley
Gala Theatre
Gala Theatre, Durham

The finale
Sally Collett (Fairy Godmother) and Cinderella (Hazel Pude)
Paul Dunn (Sweaty), Neil Armstrong (Dan Meanie) and Betty (John Carter)
Cinderella (Hazel Pude) and Prince Charming (James Hedley)
Paul Hartley (Buttons) and Hazel Pude (Cinderella)

My first panto of the 2015–2016 season. I’m not even counting how many more I have to come, but if they’re all like this I am really going to enjoy myself because the Gala has set the bar very high indeed.

Neil Armstrong and Paul Hartley have been regular members of the theatre’s panto cast for quite a few years now—Armstrong as Villain and Hartley as Comic—but this year they are not just performers but writers and directors too and they have produced what I can honestly say is the best panto I’ve ever seen at the Gala—and I have seen them all (except one) since the theatre opened.

It ticks all the traditional panto boxes—except there’s no take-off scene! Why is there no take-off scene? Take-off scenes produce more noise than all the shouts of “Hello” or “Oh yes he is!” put together.

(Can you tell it’s my favourite scene? Perhaps I should shut up about it now…)

But actually there probably wasn’t room because it is a show packed with goodies. There’s a hilarious slosh scene which is about 75% original, which is incredible because most manage 10% on a good day. There’s imaginative and very funny use of a hot-air balloon and a video camera (get your imaginations to work on that!). And Cinderella’s transformation scene, from rags to ball gown, was really fast and impressive, drawing delighted gasps from the audience.

The music is a mixture of panto standards and the bang-up-to-date (“Uptown Funk” inevitably) and there’s a wonderful moment when Prince Charming picks up an electric guitar and launches into a really rocking version of “Johnny B. Goode”.

And while we’re on the subject of the music, Georgina Mannifield’s choreography and the dancers, both the four professionals (one of whom is Mannifield) and the youngsters (the “Babes” in the traditional terminology), are excellent and the kids’ performances go well beyond simply introducing a cuteness factor.

There’s great interaction between the cast and the audience, with something for everyone—especially the gags, for most, of course, appeal to the kids (including the obligatory poo jokes) but there is just the occasional touch of filth which flies well above the kids’ heads but has the adults howling with laughter.

What I particularly liked was the re-imagining of some of the characters. Cinders (Hazel Pude), of course, is sweet and lovable—there’s really no other way to play her—and Paul Hartley’s Buttons is as manic and funny as ever. The Uglies—Betty (John Carter) and Sweaty (Paul Dunn)—are really horrible but really funny, as they should be, and Sally Collett’s Fairy Godmother is less glitz and glam and more the best friend every girl would like to have—and we discover her at the beginning not appearing in a flash of pyro but sitting on the ground reading fairy stories to a group of young children.

The big change is in Prince Charming and Dandini. In fact Dandini the sidekick has vanished and is replaced by Dan Meanie, the Prince’s uncle and the Prime Minister who is determined that the Prince will never marry for only when he marries will he become King and Meanie is determined never to be—wait for it!—a number two. As played by Neil Armstrong, he is mean (of course), sly, underhand and thoroughly nasty but—after all, this is panto—gets his comeuppance in the end.

James Hedley’s Prince Charming is not the dashing, heroic and romantic Principal Boy. In fact, he’s smaller than the other men (including the Uglies) so great play is made of his size—‘smallist’ jokes abound!—but he’s a thoroughly nice lad as well as playing a mean guitar and he gets what he deserves: the lovely Cinderella.

Oh yes, and there’s also a really nasty big black bear. Beware!

It’s a great cast and the show is a refreshingly fresh take on the traditional story, with new ideas which don’t take anything away from the much loved tale but add to it. I loved it!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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