For an increasing number of people, the festive season begins with The Customs House pantomime.
It’s not just a show, it’s a tradition. Generations attend together, safe in the knowledge it will deliver something for everyone.
People attend knowing – not expecting or hoping – they will have a good time.
This year’s offering, Jack and the Beanstalk, will add to the legend.
More than 20,000 tickets had been sold and 21 shows out of 69 performances were either sold out or had single tickets left before the first curtain up.
Those who have tickets can rest assured, this is a great panto.
All the right ingredients are present: a clever and witty script from long-time collaborators Ray Spencer and Graeme Thompson; a superb cast; a good choice of songs; brilliant set and costumes; a little bit of magic provided by a couple of good special effects, and pace – it fairly rattles along.
Regular attenders will recognise a few faces, and a couple of jokes.
Steven Lee Hamilton is back as the baddie, and a marvelous Fleshcreep he makes too. He struts the stage with the right amount of cocky arrogance, doesn’t waste a single delicious line and his voice just gets better and better – his opening number of the second half is one of many musical highlights.
Also back is the irrepressible Luke Maddison as Jack, perfect as an energetic and acrobatic leading man. Natasha Haws plays love interest Eloise with skill and confidence, her feistiness an antidote to so many wimpering, simpering leading panto ladies. Her duet with Luke, while the daft brother Arbuthnot is hiding down a well is an absolute joy.
Gareth Hunter plays the Mayor of Cooksonville, Eloise’s dad, with authority and an Italian accent, which he manages to keep intact throughout the show.
There are two newcomers to the show – David John Hopper as the aforementioned Arbuthnot and Eleanor Chaganis as the Fairy Arachis. Young David is a real find. He has perfect comic timing, a wonderful voice, great stage presence and superb delivery. His onstage work with Ray Spencer echoes Ray’s incredible partnership with Bob Stott. Eleanor too has a lovely voice, her version of December from the Anastasia cartoon movie is wonderful, and she impresses as the Fairy.
Last – but never least – of the magnificent seven performers is Ray who plays Dame Trott. There can be few more experienced panto performers than the former Tommy the Trumpeter and it shows as he milks his own script for every laugh; ad libs hilariously at any given opportunity, but generously allows the talented team he has assembled to shine. It was clear to regular attenders that Ray would make a good dame once Bob Stott retired from the Customs House shows, but he’s better than good – he’s an unforgettable dame.
Ray also directs and has ensured the mayhem is kept at the right speed.
Jason Cook is the almost recognisable voice of the giant, and praise must also go to those behind – or inside – the dancing cow Doddington, Rachel Tait, Caitlin Henderson and Kirsty Graham.
The set design and costumes produced by Matt Fox and Paul Shriek are quite brilliant and will put many other pantomimes, with far bigger budgets, to shame.
The young performers from South Tyneside Dance Workshop provide plenty of well-choreographed movement and all manage to keep a straight face despite the chaos around them.
If you’re looking for a plot, there is one. Impoverished Dame Trott has to sell a cow to pay the rent, but the transaction falls to daft Arbuthnot who swaps it for magic beans, which is just as well as FleshCreep has kidnapped Eloise for the Giant and the only way our hero Jack can save her is to use the beanstalk which has flowered from the beans to enormous proportions enabling him to climb up to the Land Above The Clouds. Got it?
There are plenty of Disney tunes expertly performed and some familiar songs from the shows that audiences will enjoy, but the most popular number by far is a daft You Tube hit– Pen Pineapple Apple Pen – that has somehow garnered millions and millions of hits. Younger members of the audience went wild; we oldies were just baffled.
But the song is part of why The Customs House is so successful. Under Ray’s expert guidance it is in tune with what its young audience is listening to, but also continues to bridge the generation gap to be truly, hilariously, inclusive.
The legend continues …
* Jack and the Beanstalk runs at The Customs House, South Shields, until January 7 th