Empire Theatre, Sunderland

Cinderella is a Qdos panto. In other words, it's one of the biggies: big budget (professional dancers as well as big sets, a multitude of cloths and spectacular lighting effects) and big stars - in this case Darren Day, Jean Fergusson (Marina in Last of the Summer Wine), Syd Little (of Little and Large), and Kate Heavenor (Children's BBC). It therefore makes an intersting comparison with the other two I've seen so far this season, both locally produced with local as opposed to national "names".

The costumes are spectacular, particularly the Ugly Sisters' who flaunted in different (and more outrageous) "frocks" every time they appeared onstage, particularly Mark Two as Ravishing Rita. The dancers (five girls and two boys), too, were beautifully dressed in a variety of different costumes, as were the babes.

And it was really good to see the re-appearance of that good old panto speciality act, the UV scene, which amateurs have kept but has been lost from the professional panto stage, where it used to be a staple ingredient. Les Puppetiques en Noir really thrilled the kids, for whom it was a novel experience. Wonderful! What is probably the oldest special effect in the business had the greatest impact!

But all this would have been just wasted effort if the performances hadn't been up to scratch. - and they were! Darren Day makes an engaging Buttons with an easy rapport with the kids (and mums and dads) in the audience and his string of impressions kept the kids amused, if sometimes we older ones didn't recognise some of the pop singers! He got the pathos of the character spot on: Buttons is, perhaps, the saddest character in the whole of panto. Everybody in the audience loves him, he does all he can to help Cinderella marry the man she loves, and yet, at the end, he is the one who doesn't get the girl he loves, because that girl is Cinderella. Ahhhh! This audience felt for him.

Jean Fergusson's Fairy Godmother had a lovely comic edge and she chose - wisely, I think - not to play too much on her Summer Wine character, although her entrance on Marina's trademark bike with the full Fairy Godmother regalia on top and white hotpants beneath was a lovely moment.

The Uglies, of course, are two of the best parts in panto, and Simon Bashford and Mark Two made the most of their every moment onstage.

Cinderella is probably the most thankless part in the entire show. Really - like all principal girls - all she has to do is look beautiful (Kate Heavenor does), sing well (ditto), and be appealing (ditto once more). Prince Charming has a bit more to do - and Tim Churchill did it well - but it is still not something to get your teeth into.

For me, the biggest disappointment was Dandini (Gareth Owen). I am not referring to Owen, who was fine and did verything required of him with thoroughgoing professionalism, but to the way in which the part was downplayed in this particular production. The opportunities in this part for comedy are legion (look at the way Julian Clary plays it!), but this Dandini was straight down the middle and the actor was not given the chance to shine, which was sad.

As for Syd Little, he was... well, Syd Little, giving exactly the sort of performance one would expect from a performer of his experience, but again I have to say that the comic possibilities of Baron Hardup were not, as the jargon is, maximised. He deserved better.

Good dancers - very good at their job, well choreographed and good to look at, and good Babes - and what a joy to see a boy among them! Well done Tom Reed, who looked every inch the pro.

The word is that this may well be the best Empire panto ever in terms of audience and box office. It deserves to be.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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