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Beauty and the Beast at South Shields Customs House

Beauty and the Beast
South Shields Customs House
Until Saturday 5th January 2019

We finished our panto season at the Sunderland Empire on Tuesday. So what do we do now to fill the gap… Let’s go to more shows!  We still had not seen Ray & David at The Customs House yet. This isn’t a review though, it’s the reaction of a member of the audience.

Saturday morning. The first day off of my holiday and the alarm goes off. Joy! Time to go to South Shields for the Custom House panto. Robert Wilson Baker had kindly agreed to review it originally as I had a late one at the day job to contend with.  I had enjoyed the ‘little panto with a big heart’ in previous years and needed a good laugh so when Dame Bella invited us along we didn’t need asking twice.

In previous years we had enjoyed the show at the back of the stalls. It was always a great viewpoint to see the audience’s reaction as Ray Spencer delivered a masterclass in entertaining everyone from 3 weeks old to 80+. Today’s tickets were in row B. So close the performers can actually spot us. So close we were in danger of being hit by Hopper’s vacuum cleaner attachment.

This proximity did give us a chance to evaluate the design up close. The show’s designers Matt Fox and Paul Shriek had picked up the Great British Panto Award for the Best Costume after the success of The Lambton Worm last year. No mean feat considering the competition around the country.  The costumes were amazing up close. The fine detail, which is hard to spot on row S, is stunning.

Onto the panto. Writers Ray Spencer and Graeme Thompson clearly have a point to make about the current state of our society. The thinly veiled attack on the current government is passed off as setting the scene. The description of people starving as the rich leaders feed off their efforts would be brought sharply into focus as Ray reminded the audience as part of the charity appeal at the end: kids are going hungry now the schools are closed in 2018. In fact this is probably the most political panto we’ve seen. We’re not just talking about the odd Brexit joke here.

Beauty and the Beast is another tale that has had the Disney animation treatment. I haven’t seen the film and I cannot say it is a panto storyline that has ever floated my boat. However, other versions don’t have the fine double act that is Ray Spencer and David John Hopper in them.

This was the first of three shows today so you could forgive them for holding back, conserving their energies a little. But that’s not how it is done at the Customs House Panto. It may be an 11 o’clock start but the people have paid to see the only panto that they’ll see this year. This is one show that doesn’t forget how special it is for each young person in the audience. So full throttle it is then.

Panto Dame Bella Ballcock is of course, performed by Ray Spencer. He fires off the jokes. Some are aimed at the kids, a number are for the parents. At all times Ray is in control, directing the action as he goes. He intrinsically knows when the show needs a boost, a quick one-liner.

His perfect partner is his on stage son, Arbuthnot. I don’t think David John Hopper quite appreciates how much of a hero he is to the young people of South Tyneside. His candour and positivity brightens up the room for the young attendees of the show.  Hopper physically puts himself through the mill at each performance, falling over and getting covered in gunk. He must be black and blue at the end of the run. Yet, as he speaks to the kids, he beams a positive light. He represents everything that is good about these shows.

Then we come to the songs. There are too many, I’m afraid. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with the performances. Steven Lee Hamilton, as the striking Beast / Prince coupled with Annie Guy as Beauty, share much of the vocal duties and they don’t put a note wrong. I cannot help feeling that the pace of the show is affected by the number of songs. The pace gets slowed down by the abundance of musical numbers. At about 2 hours 40 (including interval), it is the longest show that we’ve seen this year. Trimming about 20 minutes off it would make it less of a marathon for the younger members of the audience. That’s my opinion, no more, and I’m sure the creators of the show will disagree.

Sitting at the front also revealed another element I hadn’t picked up upon previously. Those hard-working young dancers from the South Tyneside Dance Workshop stay in character whenever they are on stage. It isn’t just about being in the right location – they consider their facial expressions and where they are looking. They are the most professional bunch that we’ve seen this season.

Mention must also go to the new character, Cutlet. Charlie Raine signs her way through the show for the hard of hearing. The lovable character is a hit and should be retained in future shows. It is good to see cutlet will be appearing with Arbuthnot in February.

Completing the madness is long-time associate Gareth Hunter as the Duke du Pommefrites playing his usual stabilising role; Afnan Iftikhar as Gaviscon – the baddy, as every panto needs one; Eleanor Chaganis as the Enchantress – the fairy godmother type and Georgia Nicholson as the Beast’s servant Hortensia.

Pantos often have common features, but we haven’t seen many messy scenes this year in other productions. Hopper’s aim resulted in the Dame getting covered from head to toe in custard – that was one of the many good laughs during the show. This panto also has a take-off scene so the kids can scream “it’s behind you” and a community singing competition which succeeds in getting everyone involved – even at this time of the day.

Yes, Beauty and the Beast is a successful panto. Yes, we enjoyed it. Yes, we recommend it. It continues to punch above it’s weight in terms of design and comedy. Ray conducts the chaos with assured confidence whilst Hopper has a heart of gold. With a spot of further editing this could have been close to perfect.

Panto thoughts by Stephen Oliver.

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