Michael Harrison with original music and lyrics by Olly Ashmore
Theatre Royal, Newcastle

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There's a danger with the big pantos, expensively produced and featuring well known names (needed to put the necessary number of bums on seats), that the glitz and the glamour become more important than the show. Far too often the big names rely on their celebrity status and aren't really in sympathy with the genre and the whole thing becomes a glamorous disappointment.

Not at the Newcastle Theatre Royal this year, not by a long way! Here is a cast which really understands panto and every single one of them throws him or herself into every aspect of the show. Yes, the scenery and costumes (designed by Hugh Durrant) are brilliant and there are some wonderful stage pictures; yes, the lighting (by Ben Cracknell) makes use of the latest technology and does much to bring out the "Oos!" and "Ahs" for the stage pictures; yes, the transformation scene was all that could be expected, with no less than four white Shetland ponies; but it is the cast which makes this the best panto we've seen at the Royal for a long time.

The big name - especially in the North East - is Jill Halfpenny who plays the Fairy Godmother. Having seen her recently in The Bodies, a version of Zola's Thérèse Raquin at Live Theatre, I knew she could act, and she played Chicago's Roxy Hart in the West End, so it's obvious she can sing, but fame as a member of the cast of EastEnders and Coronation Street or the winner of Strictly Come Dancing didn't really suggest a star of panto. How wrong can you be! Her Geordie Fairy hit just the right note: she set up an easy relationship with the audience right from the off and her Fairy Godmother was an integral part of the story rather than just a "supernatural".

And this year the Royal had not one but two great panto double acts. Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robins have been playing the Uglies for 25 years (23 of them with Qdos) and, from their seemingly inexhaustible range of outrageous frocks to their banter with each other and the audience, they were everything a panto dame should be, times two. And they don't neglect the cruelty of the roles: their Jordan and Jodie are really nasty, sometimes seeming to soften towards Cinders only to switch to being even nastier than before. They create in the audience that kind of love/hate relationship which is so difficult to achieve but which they made seem easy.

Clive Webb (Baron Hardup) and Danny Adams (Buttons), a father and son comic team, produced the most gloriously sloshy slosh scene I have ever seen. They are extremely inventive and established a relationship with the audience immediately. Adams has a physicality and a loose-limbedness (does that word really exist?) in his playing and an incredibly mobile face. At times I was reminded of Lee Evans but he has a style all of his own.

Sean Needham (Prince Charming) and Jody Crosier (Dandini) have probably the most thankless roles in the show, for there is little for them to do except be the romantic lead and his sidekick, the serious characters, which they did with aplomb. However Crosier does get the opportunity to break out and join in an hilariously energetic redition of The Twelve Days of Christmas alongside Webb, Adams and Halfpenny which had the audience crying with laughter.

Cinderella is played by local lass Lauren Hall. She actually performed in the Royal panto nine years ago as one of the Babes and two years ago she was Wendy in Peter Pan. Now she returns as the eponymous lead and what a good job she makes of it, capturing the sweetness, pathos and enthusiasm of the character.

A talented ensemble of dancers and, of course, the Babes (from the Marron Stage School) complete the line-up of a superb example of what panto can be when it has a cast and a director who really know the genre - alas too often a rarity nowadays in the "biggies"!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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