Neil Armstrong and Paul Hartley
Gala Theatre, Durham
It is hard to believe that this is only the third Gala panto written and directed by Neil Armstrong and Paul Hartley, for their off-the-wall take on panto has become a highlight of Christmas theatre in the North East. But it is, and yet again their show, the first to open in the region, sets the bar high.
Robinson Crusoe is one of those pantos which sit quietly in the background, not quite forgotten but not seen very often, although the Pirates of the Caribbean film revived its popularity around ten years ago. The traditional story has a treasure map, a desert island, cannibals, pirates under the command of Captain Blackheart and, of course, Man (or Girl) Friday. Also involved is Crusoe’s mother who is, of course, the show’s Dame, his brother Billy and his girlfriend Polly Perkins.
This version differs considerably. Robinson Crusoe (Jamie Brown in his second stint as Principal Boy at the Gala) isn’t a sailor but wants to be one. His mother, Dame Connie Crusoe (Paul Dunn, who has been the regular Dame since 2015), who runs the Clarty Cart Cleaning Company and whose sailor husband vanished at sea (hmm, a touch of the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, winks’ there!), won’t let him.
However, he meets Petty Officer Perkins (who has a very manly moustache—could this possibly be Polly Perkins in disguise? Surely not! Although the fact that he is played by Lauren Waine might provide a clue…) and he joins Captain Blackheart’s ship. That’s the villainous pirate Captain Blackheart, played as ever by Neil Armstrong.
And so the adventures begin.
Very varied adventures they are too, including that awful moment when Dame Connie gets stuck in a bog and has to be rescued by her daft son Billy Bob (Paul Hartley; who else?). Another very original slosh scene, in this case involving lots of nasty, black mud. Armstrong and Hartley are making something of a speciality of creating very different slosh scenes.
And creating very different Principal Girls. Last year’s Princess Jilliana of Spennymoor (Sarah Boulter) was the highest on the feistiness scale that I’ve ever seen and I would reckon that this year Lauren Waine buckles a better swash than any PG in living memory!
It hardly seems necessary to mention Armstrong and Hartley’s performances. They worked together as Villain and Comic respectively for quite a few years before they took over the reins of the show and they have a great working relationship with each other on stage as well as off—and with the audience. From Hartley’s first “Hello-a!” the audience are with him all the way and, as for Armstrong, they love him and they hate him. When the audience applauded his song they clapped. “What’re you applauding for?” he asked. “You’re supposed to boo me!” So they did.
As Aqua Marina, Goddess of the Sea, Jayne Mackenzie continues the Gala tradition of the good Immortal being much more human. Her signature tune with the two girl dancers is a lovely subversion of the traditional sweet supernatural image.
And talking of the dancers, new choreographer Amanda Woods takes the show's dance to new heights this year, very imaginative and with fine performances not only from the five professionals (one up on last year) but also from the eight 'Kids' (the programme’s description, not mine, but I suppose 'Babes' has gone out of fashion) who are also given more dialogue this year and certainly live up to the trust placed in them.
There’s a three-piece band, backing some excellent singing not just from Mackenzie, Waine and Brown but from the entire ensemble.
And there are many clever ideas, which I will not reveal. You will never—honestly, never—guess who Man Friday is! And there are lots of local references too—although what poor Spennymoor has done to be so insulted year after year I don't know! Blackheart's ship is moored at Seaham Harbour and the Island of Flames appears to be fairly close to... Hartlepool?
I nearly forgot Pecky! How could I? Pecky the big—and I mean big (as in fat)—red parrot, played by that master of the skin parts John Murdoch, who gave us his Bear in Cinderella in 2015 and Cow in Jack and the Beanstalk last year. Will he fly? You’ll have to go to find out.
But still no take-off scene…