Customs House, South Shields
Here beginneth the 2004/5 panto season!
Going to a Customs House panto is a bit like slipping into a comfy pair of slippers (Boy, am I giving my age away!) and settling down to a good night's "crack" (as we say in the North East) with a bunch of good friends. It has to be said, too, that some of those good friends are the jokes (although the old favourite "Twenty miles from London and still no sign of Dick" has unaccountably gone missing this year), but no one worries about that because it's all part of the fun. The principals, Comic Ray Spencer (who also wrote and directed and, in his spare time, runs the theatre) and Dame Bob Stott, have worked together for more than twenty years and have probably trodden the Customs House boards more often than the cleaners, and the majority of the rest of the cast are firm favourites at the theatre, too. Not all, though, for new blood is given a chance every year. This helps to explain why the panto is such a firm favourite with the people of South Tyneside and packs the theatre. Last year it sold 98% of the seats over the whole run, which, even by panto standards, is excellent business.
This year it will do pretty much the same, for tickets are harder to come by than... something which is hard to come by. (I nearly said footballing talent at Sunderland AFC but that would draw down upon me the wrath of all the people of the city, so it's a good job I didn't.)
The thing about the Customs House panto every year is that it is very much a family panto - and not just in the normal meaning of the phrase: it's a panto for the whole South Tyneside family. In the bigger - and admittedly much glitzier - pantos produced by companies like Qdos, you'll get some local references thrown in to "localise" it, but here it's organic: the panto rises out of the local community, appealing to local sensibilities and the local sense of humour.
And the people are local: Ray and Bob, of course, but there's also local TV presenter Cathy Secker (Good Fairy); Donald McBride (Alderman Fitzwarren and the Sultan) and David Whitaker (the Captain), both ex-RSC but also firm favourites at the theatre; Steven Rae (Dick) who made his professional debut at the theatre; Peter Darrant (King Rat) who was in the very first Customs House panto ten years ago; Wayne Miller (the Mate), another regular performer at the theatre whom many of the children in the audience would recognise from a number of touring Theatre in Education shows; Rosie Winter (Alice), who went to school just a mile or two away and makes her professional debut in this show; and Ashley Lamb (Cat), still at college in the town but already a seasoned performer (and her mum's a dresser and her dad made the props!).
I didn't attend attend the press night: instead I watched a matinee which was full of over 300 primary school children and two parties of senior citizens. If you can keep an audience like that attentive, enjoying themselves and laughing for nearly two and three-quarter hours (including interval), then you have succeeded. They did on both counts!
It really is a barrel of laughs. It's a good, traditional panto with all the right ingredients and excellent performances, from the stars to the girls of the South Tyneside Dance Workshop. I have another three or four pantos to see this season: they'll have their work cut out to maintain the same standard of sheer entertainment.
"Dick Whittington" runs at the Customs House until 8th January.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan