Customs House, South Shields
Well, that's the first party of the Christmas season over!
That is what the Customs House panto is, a family party - South Tyneside's family party. Ray Spencer (Tommy the Trumpeter) and Bob Stott (Nurse Dame Dotty) have been doing their South Tyneside pantomime double act since God was a boy and Donald McBride (King Street - local reference) has been a firm panto favourite at the theatre for a number of years. Other cast members - Alexandra Gardner (Beauty), Stephen Rae Orince Calrence of Cleadon), David Whitaker (a wonderfully evil Lord Mekon),and Jean Southern, Helen Russell and Gwen Doran (the "girls" from Dirty Dusting who played Fairies Poinsetta, Petunia and Pansy) - have all appeared on the Customs House stage on a number of occasions, so they are well known to the audience. The only newcomer is Kathy Secker, who plays the evil fairy Narcissus (Shouldn't that be Narcissa?), but she has been a local TV presenter for 25 years and is one of the most instantly recognisable local TV faces, so everyone knows her too.
The audience keeps coming back every year, too - the theatre took the first bookings for Sleeping Beauty before last year's show, Mother Goose, had finished its run - so even if things go wrong, it doesn't really matter. The audience are there to join in the fun with a bunch of good friends, so the odd disaster just adds something!
And they do go wrong. In one scene a large bird on a perch was suspended just above head height and Ray Spencer grabbed hold of it and jumped up in the air (he was budgie jumping!) and the cord from which it hung snapped and both he and budgie collapsed in a heap. Cue delighted roars of laughter from the audience.
But make no mistake about it: this is a professional pantomime, in spite of the deliberate air of amateurishness which draws the audience in, so that we don't laugh at jokes told by the cast, we share them. We respond to them and they respond to us.
There was one incident which showed the thoroughgoing professionalism of the whole cast, from a quarter where one would least expect it: one of the Babes (who couldn't be more than eight years old at the most), when beginning a dance routine, slipped on some egg left on the stage after the previous scene and fell. There was no embarrasment, no confusion or self-consciousness: she merely picked herself up and carried on with the routine as if nothing had happened.
(A word must be said about the girls of the South Tyneside Dance Workshop: they were great! I have worked on pantos with professional dancers and in terms of energy, commitment and skill these kids could stand comparison with them.)
The Customs House panto is South Tyneside's Christmas Party - to the people of the borough it is our panto - and yet again Ray Spencer and the team have a hit on their hands.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan