Sunderland Empire Theatre
Until Monday 2 January 2023
The Sunderland Empire provides the traditional pantomime elements but in their own particular way, with drag doyenne Miss Rory and panto specialist Tom Whalley leading a small, hard-working team in a show full of local references and bouncy pop numbers.Pantomime is very much a matter of taste and different regional theatres each have their own special blend. Newcastle’s Theatre Royal has its lavish juggernaut of a panto with the frantic energy of Danny Adams and a well-established comedy team. The little panto with the big heart enchants Customs House audiences in South Shields with the tight, topical script and the legendary team of Ray Spencer and Davey Hopper. Regulars will know that the fixtures at the Sunderland Empire are Tom Whalley, a prolific pantomime writer and performer and Miss Rory, cabaret drag star and a Northeast institution.
Whalley has pantomime in his bones and his Wishee Washee is in the great tradition of knockabout comics. He supplies the requisite number of cheeky jokes to engage the children and the young at heart and has a pleasing rapport with the audience.
Miss Rory’s Widow Twankey is something different from the norm. 7 feet tall in her heels, with a piled-up red wig, she certainly fills the eye. Instead of traditional comic costumes, she wears a parade of glamorous OTT outfits in the drag tradition. This sets a very different tone from the traditional dame with hobnail boots peeping out from the skirt and produces a distinct dynamic with both the cast and the audience.
The audience is constantly being reminded, somewhat superfluously, that Twankey is a man and there is more genital-related humour than one can shake a… well, a stick at. Drawing the line is always a personal preference and I prefer my entendres a little more double than single but then, as Miss Rory might say, times are hard.
The show is staged in a panto-traditional Chinese style, moving away from the Arabian nights setting, though the location is only referred to as Far East Boldon.
Hollyoaks’ Gary Lucy as Abanaazar bellows appropriately at the audience, though the script leaves him not too much to work with, frequently alone on the stage and not always entirely at ease, perhaps because on this performance, he seemed to be experiencing voice problems. He has a semi-running gag about being a bad magician, which will no doubt develop more polish through the run. After one deliberately bumbled trick, a child’s voice was clearly heard shouting, ‘But that’s not funny’ and, to be fair, it wasn’t. Still, he maintains his characterisation throughout and definitely looks the part.
Richard Anthony-Lloyd was a pleasingly pompous Emperor and Millie Gabriel was a sinuous Spirit of the Ring. Liam Morris danced well as the Genie, all muscles and glitter, in an athletic rather than a comic portrayal. The ensemble of 5 worked hard filling the stage, supported at times by the well-drilled babes from the Kathleen Davis Stage School and the Worx-Dance Theatre Arts, bringing the cute factor.
Mikko Juan and Aisha Numah made an appealing Aladdin and Jasmine, though their relationship is more spoken of than seen. They had little opportunity to generate any romantic spark in their fleeting moments on stage together.
But then, the children would tell us panto isn’t really about the romance; it’s about the comedy and the traditional set pieces were here. The second-act take-off scene was the funniest and successfully generated loads of audience participation.
An appealing mix of pop songs are cleverly re-purposed with some clever new lyrics. ‘Hey, hey we’re the Twankeys’ is a particular favourite and the three-part band manage to punch well above their weight, under the direction of Arlene McNaught.
There is also a spectacular special effects scene with a flying carpet, though I couldn’t help thinking this may have had even more impact if the technology hadn’t already been seen in the prologue.
Before the finale Whalley reads out birthday and Christmas messages from the audience and gave a shout out to the block bookings, which is a nice local touch and must be a tradition with this panto. He also works really well bringing up the children from the audience – always a panto highlight that is welcomed back for the first time after the pandemic. This brought some lovely moments, reaffirming that it’s definitely panto time in Sunderland!