David John Hopper and Dale Jewitt
The Customs House
The Customs House, South Shields
The South Tyneside audience loves the Customs House panto. It’s still only February and already over 25% of tickets for the 2018/19 show have been sold. And the children’s show, Santa’s Naughty Elf and…, always sells out.
Last year, Doddington the Cow from Jack and the Beanstalk proved so popular that she got her own show, …And the Cow Jumped over the Moon (for the under 7s), during February half-term, which featured the bovine heroine herself and Jack’s daft brother, Arbuthnot.
This year, the February under-7s show brings back not two but four previous panto goodies—and a villain. Arbuthnot’s back, as is Puddles the Dog from The Lambton Worm (2017/18), along with The Dormouse from Alice in Wonderland (2015/16) and Chorizo the Pig from Little Red Riding Hood (2014/15). Confronting them is the villainous Fleshcreep from Jack and the Beanstalk.
And it gives the Customs House a chance to make further use of some of the amazing costumes and scenic cloths from Paul Shriek and Matt Fox (who, incidentally, have been nominated for Best Costumes in this year’s National Panto Awards).
The plot is… well, a bit complicated, really. Fleshcreep has returned to the now peaceful Cooksonville with the aim of breaking down the barriers between all the parallel Cooksonville worlds. Cue a ‘scientific’ explanation worthy of Doctor Who or Star Trek—and making about as much sense! But who cares? This is panto! And the heroes from the three different Cooksonvilles become Superheroes to take on the dastardly Supervillain.
As they come together, every one of them gets their time alone with the audience to set up their “when I shout X, you shout Y” routines, something they have to practise a number of times because the audience never shouts loudly enough the first time, do they?
First up, of course, is Fleshcreep who wants to show his contempt for the audience, telling them that he doesn’t care what they think of him because he loves boos.
(At least, I think that’s what he said.)
There follows the usual panto mayhem: tons of “oh yes it is!” (or isn’t, as the case may be); sweets being thrown into the audience; water being squirted; a bit of slosh and a bit of slapstick; bad (very bad) puns; fart jokes (if there’s one thing kids like better than a fart joke, it’s a poo joke); a chase through the auditorium and loads of opportunities to hiss and boo the villain.
This is a kids’ panto, so there’s no romantic interest or love songs, the parts of the regular panto where the young ‘uns’ attention slips away and visits to the toilets increase. But there are plenty of songs where they can stand up and join in the singing and the actions.
Too many, I think, to be honest. At the beginning of the show, when the first join-in song came along, they were all—boys and girls and big boys and big girls—on their feet, singing and dancing along with obvious enjoyment and gusto, but by the end the number of those standing and joining in had slipped by a quarter or even more. Even in panto, the old rule, “leave ‘em wanting more”, holds good.
Except, that is, for a little girl in front of me. She was about 7, with long hair, and that hair was swirling all over the place immediately a song began, her body swaying and her arms waving. She was a real headbanger and if there’d been a mosh pit she’d have plunged straight in and shown them all how it’s done!
But that apart, the cast—David John Hopper (who also directed) as Arbuthnot, Dale Jewitt (Puddles), Kylie Ann Ford (Chorizo), Eleanor Chaganis (Dormouse) and Steven Lee Hamilton (Fleshcreep), along with Lori Smedley and Katie Reed, who conducted the audience (actually appearing on stage before the show started to teach us a few dance moves) and at one point appeared as Fleshcreep’s evil henchwomen, and the very young dancers from the South Tyneside Dance Workshop—carried the audience along with them.
And of course the goodies win in the end. Fleshcreep is defeated—and yes, the audience does play a small part in that defeat—and decides to give up his evil ways and be nice.
A fun time was had by all—and you can’t ask for more than that!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan