Jack and the Beanstalk
Written and directed by Graeme Thompson
Customs House, South Shields
If you want a successful pantomime, you have to stick to the traditional formula. You can add as much glitter and glitz as you like, use as much technology as you can, people the stage with as many star names as you can afford, but if you don't give the audience what they expect from a panto, you'll fail. The corollary, of course, is that, if you don't have the glitter, glitz, technology and stars but you stick to the tried and tested formula, you can have a show which rivals the "biggies" and gives the audience just as much pleasure and enjoyment.
But it's got to be done right, with a cast that understands panto and - most important - loves performing in it.
For years the Customs House panto has done just that and has gained the reputation of being one of the best in the region, to the extent that, a few years ago, it was acclaimed the best panto in the NE by the critics of the Northern Echo, and, as the region runs from York in the south to Newcastle in the north, that was some accolade. This year we wondered. For the first time Ray Spencer would not be writing or directing, although he would, along with his onstage "mam" of over thirty years, Bob Stott, be appearing. Would Jack and the Beanstalk reach the level set by so many years of success?
The answer is a resounding "yes". A combination of Thompson's script and fast-paced direction with a cast that clearly enjoys every minute onstage (and the press performance was the third that day, so that says a lot) ensures that Jack maintains the standard, as the roars of laughter from the audience and their enthusiasm to join in at every possible opportunity clearly showed.
The stars of the show are undoubtedly Stott and Spencer whose act - and especially the asides and ad-libs - is so well polished that the show really bounces along. They are supported by an excellent team, with Graham Overton a wonderfully boo-able villain (he really knows how to work the kids in the audience) and Victoria Elliott a feisty just-graduated Fairy. As Jack, David Ducasse (most recently seen as part of Scooch, the British entrant for the Eurovision Song Contest - and, of course, their song got an airing) gives a strong performance and the principal girl, Laura Norton in her panto debut as the Princess, makes a role that is often something of a cypher into a real, believable person with whom the audience can genuinely sympathise. NE TV heritage pundit John Grundy, making not just his panto but his stage debut, impressed too, and if his dancing was not quite in time, it just added to the fun!
With contemporary jokes and references, lots of sight-gags and some awful puns, the obligatory slosh scene and take-off, much interaction with the audience, the right balance between music (a range of songs to appeal to all sections of the audience) and action, an audience sing-along and, of course, local references, this is the traditional panto par excellence and maintains the Customs House's reputation for producing a real family (and its family is the whole of South Tyneside) panto.
"Jack and the Beanstalk" runs until 6th January
Reviewer: Peter Lathan