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REVIEW: Arbuthnot and the Beanstalk at South Shields Customs House

Arbuthnot and the Beanstalk

South Shields Customs House

Until Sunday 16 April 2023

Written by Ray Spencer & Graeme Thompson

Updates and additional material by Davey Hopper

Directed by Davey Hopper

Photo: Stephen Oliver

The panto with a big heart has expanded to include an Easter edition. Arbuthnot is back back but there have been some changes in this, the venue’s first full length Easter Panto. The result is a warm, funny story that had the young audience excitedly taking part in the second act. The final party number had the audience on their feet and that helped ensure the families left happy.

With a flash, Lucy Davis appears as The Fairy of the Forest. She sets up the story and gets the audience quickly on side. I noted at this point that Lucy has a fantastic powerful singing voice, which was used a number of times during the show to great effect.

Bang! After another flash Tom Whalley appears as Fleshcreep. We have seen Tom many, many times and he usually plays the comic - so this is a bit of a departure to see him as the baddie. Unlike many who have played Fleshcreep before him, he has a speed about him which results in him covering much more of the stage than other  tend to do. He was able to be really creepy and throw "that look" before quickly pinging across to the other side. Though he is the creepy servant of the giant, Tom was able to play the role with natural humour. Certainly there was energy in the show. 

Photos: Jordan Embleton

(At this point I should note that on Sunday the role of Fleshcreep will be taken by none other than writer Ray Spencer himself - again, a big departure from his usual role as Dame).

After the usual exchanges between good and dark forces we crack on with the story. Kieron Michael is Dame Trott - a poor dairy owner who is behind on her rent to the Mayor (David McCarthy). She only has the carefree Jack (Aiden Nord) as support and Jack is more interested in starting a romance with the Mayor's daughter Jill (Beth Clarke). 

So far, this is normal Jack in the Beanstalk territory and you know where it is going. But a glance at the title in the poster reminds us otherwise. In a link with continuity of the Cooksonville cannon, Dame Trott has asked her sister Bela for support, and so nephew Arbuthnot (David Hopper) is sent across to help out. As always happens - Arbuthnot also falls in love with Jill too.

A nice feature was to put a party song on at the end -
and invite the parents to get their phones out, a 
move that will help the show spread on social media!
Photo: Stephen Oliver

This is a great traditional panto - and with all tickets at just £15 - it represents much better value for many than the major pantos at Christmas. You still get all of the regular elements of Jack in the Beanstalk. We have Harvey Johnson and Charlotte Purvis in the classic two person panto cow. You get the messy slosh scene as the tarpaulin is rolled out and the cow washing machine leaves David Hopper, as Arbuthnot, covered in more bruises. There is the classic take off scene that has the audience whipped up into a frenzy with shouts of "its behind you!" - again using Tom Whalley's speed to execute it fairly rapidly. We have the recycled jokes ("I hate you - I hate you - I hate you" "Three Hates are 24") and the dancers from the South Tyneside Dance Workshop doing a thoroughly professional job on the music numbers. Even if the regular cast were not where they expected - the dancers carried on and adjusted. The music had some interesting - and at times brave - arrangements from musical director Jen Stevens. One, song, normally done largely acapella with drums, was well crafted into an ensemble piece towards the end.

Behind the scenes the team must have been working hard as props appeared and where thrown off as the show demanded.

The show worked. It took a little while at the start to get the audience on board. It is a personal thing but sometimes pantos go for the solo songs a bit too quick in the piece before the kids have worked out the story. Having said that - the show did stick to the story rather than just being a showcase for the talent. It is a smaller panto cast but they worked really well as a tight unit. As both the local star and director - I have to say that Hopper has been very generous in spreading the opportunities for laughs across the group and this has helped with the evenness of the show. If this is a try out on his ability to direct future full length pantos then I would suggest  that he has done a very good job here.

Regular readers are getting ready for a "but", aren't you? I might be getting older (nothing I can do about that) but I would turn down the volume during the musical numbers just a fraction as it was sad that I couldn't always make out the lyrics. It is a panto and not a rock concert.

It was a fun evening at the Customs House and was well worth a trip to South Shields. Great cast in a traditional pantomime that didn't forget to make the audience feel involved.

Review by Stephen Oliver


Tickets are £15 and are available from the theatre and online from

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