The Exchange, North Shields
I have in my time seen more pantos than you could throw a custard pie at; many have been tacky affairs, vehicles for whatever minor celebs have been roped in to boost ticket sales. Hang on though! The very phrase 'minor celebs' could be a tautology. Do any of them merit the adjective 'major'?
I was once commissioned to write a panto. It is not a form that invites innovation: its very attraction for the audience is knowing what is to come. The secret, I soon realised, is to do the familiar well, make a well-worn path seem freshly tarmacked. Though I’m still at a loss to explain the long-term survival of so many soppy panto love songs which leave the young audiences bored, switched off and shuffling on their bottoms while they wait for more of the comic ‘real’ stuff, which here often means the galumphing Buttons (in this show Craig Richardson).
It was, I suspect, a childhood exposure to those same sloppy love songs that turned me irrevocably against the artifice of musicals themselves.
Nor is Cinderella free of such songs. That notwithstanding, this is among the wildest, most exuberant and joyful pantos you could imagine. It is not a vehicle for anything but itself and, though obviously on a limited budget compared to some of its bigger neighbours in the North East, what it lacks in funds it more than makes up for in energy and imagination.
There are the tried and tested formulae of course. Any panto turns its back on set pieces at its peril. But the show does come at them with a dotty and infectious enthusiasm that has the packed young Exchange audience screaming the roof off.
Take the highly animated rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The actors whizz through a dozen domestic items and, each time they get to "Five Toilet Rolls", throw the cluster of rolls out into an increasingly baying and gleefully hysterical audience. Not only that, the same actors then descend into that same audience to retrieve them.
I have to say some toilet rolls were harmed in this performance but somehow the cast survived both the ten minutes of total bedlam and the screaming, seething, frenetic young mass of humanity. This doesn’t happen with the RSC.
The show is perkily written and directed by Dale Meeks with some neat touches. When the Prince (Lucy Walton) and Dandini (Janine Leigh) come calling to test the glass slipper for size, we realise one ugly sister has smuggled a false leg beneath her skirt.
The sisters Lysteria and Botulism are played by Paul Martin and Steven Stobbs with a welcome grossness, lack of sartorial taste and occasional real flash of mental cruelty towards Cinderella that clearly affected the audience. Colourful costumes overall are designed by Charmaine Hamilton.
Lucy Marie Curry is the downtrodden Cinderella with Lucy Walton as her Prince Charming. Is it my imagination or has the concept of a romantic Prince taken a bit of a battering of late?
Michael Geddes (Barron Harrdup) and Jayne MacKenzie (Fairy Godmother) complete a winning cast of eight. I like the fact the painted / projected backdrops include one of North Shields and The Exchange building itself, though more care, please, with some of that spelling, such as the sign to the Fish Key.
In some ways, this is pared-down panto: no glittering carriage, no sumptuous ball. But it hurtles along with a pace and energy that makes me suspect the cast will end up several stone lighter by the run’s end. And I also suspect several of the audience will emerge with rasping throats.
Reviewer: Peter Mortimer