Gala Theatre, Durham
The first night audience of the Gala's first professional pantomime was determined to enjoy itself. We were only half a dozen bars into the overture when they started clapping along and they maintained that level of involvement throughout, whether yelling "Oh no you didn't!", telling a cast member "It's behind you!" or simply cheering or booing. They clearly wanted a traditional panto and that is what they got.
There are no big stars - best known (if we discount novelty act Bananas in Pyjamas) is comic Pee Wee Price, but he is hardly a national figure of the kind we find on the big theatre pantos - but all of the cast give solid performances, including the two leads who were found by auditions of local people at the theatre. Kirsti McDonagh (Cinderella) has all the glamour and appeal the part needs and Luke Gasper (not, strictly speaking, local, but a student at Durham University), who plays Prince Charming, has an excellent voice which at times sounded as if it could handle a more classical repertoire with ease.
The transformation scene was beautifully effected - I didn't notice the switch of Cinders for a chorus member in her costume as she knelt with her back to the audience, and I was watching out for something like that. It actually got to the stage that I thought that there would be an on-stage transformation of her costume so that, when she suddenly appeared in all her going-to-the-ball finery, I was as surprised as any other member of the audience.
It would not be a proper first night without something going wrong, and so it did. As we went through the old gag of Buttons taking off one of the Ugly Sisters stockings - it goes on and on - suddenly "she" fell off the stool, her wig came off and everyone on stage corpsed for a good three or four minutes - as did the entire audience. That's one of the joys of panto: you don't have to try to cover up mistakes, you build them up. It's all part of the fun.
It's a very traditional version of the show - we even have the wicked step-mother, a character which many (if not most) now dispense with - except that there was no Baron Hardup, always a good part for a second comic. It even kept the disguised fairy godmother in the wood, which is seen less and less frequently nowadays. What was missing was a good "slosh" scene, the slapstick comedy in which gooey substances are flung about with great abandon.
One thing that I didn't like was a final curtain speech by Pee Wee Price, thanking everybody in sight, which does tend to bring down the high we should be left with at the end. He took the opportunity - understandable given the current problems faced by the theatre - to ask the people of Durham to support their theatre, but it did tend to dissipate the magic they had all worked so hard to build up.
Still, the Gala can be pleased with its first panto!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan