Beauty and The Beast
Until Sunday 31 December 2023
Sunderland has, in Beauty and the Beast, a pantomime that it can be proud of. We have been heading to the Wearside venue for many years and it is pleasing to see the best panto we have seen on that stage.
Firstly, I know this is late in the run...we had missed press night but we kept hearing on the grapevine that this was Sunderland's year so we thought we'd buy a couple of tickets and check it out as a post Christmas treat.
A number of north east venues have now ditched the big "marquee names" for their panto in favour of a regular, locally based, team of regulars that appear each year. This creates recognition with the audience and loyalty to their local pantomime. The regular team behind the Sunderland show have been a part of the region's entertainment for years and they understand the dna of a successful show. Tom Whalley is not only an exceptional panto comic but he also writes pantos himself so he fully understands the format (though this particular show is written by Jon Monie). Louie La Plonk quickly gets the kids on side and is the source of many laughs in he show.
Dan Cunningham's successful alto ego character Miss Rory appears as the panto dame, Rorina La Plonk. This dame is like no other in the North East scene. A combination of unique delivery and dry wit has synthesised a character that is both likeable but is not a 'fussy wet mess' (unlike some Dames). You have a Dame with a back bone. It is different and a perfect partnership with Tom.
Having said all that - there is a name on the poster. But it is Wallsend legend Charlie Hardwick rather some random celebrity that tops the billing. As the Fairy Godmother, Fairy Bon Bon, she has the chance to grace the stage and sing a bit.
But here is a big point... The Sunderland Empire show sticks to the story. It is less of a showcase for the individual talents and more of an talented ensemble piece that tells the actual story in a fun way. This is rather than being a variety show with a vague theme. The costumes are stunning and the set looks high end quality (apart from one annoying light on the rear arch that was on the blink and once noticed, it couldn't be unnoticed - hopefully only an issue for just the one show). It has the feel of a big production.
The cast is then supplemented with Channel 5 Milkshake's Olivia Birchenough as Belle who felt like an integral part of the story (which isn't always the case with BATB), the West End's Samuel Wyn Morris making his panto debut and given an opportunity to show off his excellent singing voice and George Olney as the arrogant Hugo. As see, this does come across as an ensemble piece with these three given appropriate chances to shine or, in Hugo's case, wind the audience up as the one to boo at. There are no weaknesses in the singing but Samuel's voice was a real stand out in this show bringing back memories of Sheila Fergusson back in 2008 - which was our favourite Empire show until now.
So there you have it. It was worth running across to catch one of the final shows to see the Empire panto. This is a panto worth seeing. It is funny, it looks lush and has a great cast.
Review: Stephen Oliver
Photos: David James Wood
Beauty and the Beast, continues at the Sunderland Empire’s stage until Sunday 31 December 2023. Tickets are available online now at https://tinyurl.com/SundPanto2023Tix *
*A £3.65 transaction fee applies to online bookings.