A 5 star night of songs, sketches and all out silliness
It's funny how some traditions live long and strong, year after year. Take Panto season, which is here again (oh yes it is); the usually demure and sedate theatre going audiences are suddenly turned into and accompanied by screaming kids sporting all manner of flashing appendages; the knowing whispers when an actor misses a line are swapped for roars of laughter both on & off the stage and the 4th wall is torn down and ceremoniously trampled on as young and old are encouraged to great the cast with cheers, boos, chants and giggles.
This years offering at Darlington Civic is yet again a riotous mix of song & dance which will have everyone in tears of laughter (tho not always for the same reason). Starring Barry & Paul Elliott, better known as the Chuckle Brothers, they bring their hilarious and very clever blend of daftness to the stage with some quite brilliant visual routines - for some, the Chuckles are marmite, you either love 'em or you hate 'em but I defy anyone not to marvel at their timeless comedy - their opening song set the pace for a rollercoaster of audience fun while their homage to Wilson, Keppel and Betty (Google them, you'll know who I mean) had me literally gasping for breath. Masters at their trade, they should be rightfully mentioned in the same sentence as the very best of panto headliners, just remember to strap your ribs tightly, otherwise they are likely to burst.
Of course, Aladdin is not simply a Chuckle Brothers vehicle and the casting manager has assembled a superb group who clearly relish the freedom and relaxed nature panto allows. Philip Meeks, as everyone's favourite Aunty, Widow Twanky, must rival the record for the most costume changes in one night and brings a touch of modern pop culture with some very fetching Miley-esque twerking which left many on the floor in tears of laughter. A genius of comedic timing and with a Geordie accent that immediately puts everyone in mind of 'someone' they know, the dictionary definition for pantomime dame should just have a picture of Mr Meeks.
Phil Corbitt, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Harold Meeker from Rentaghost, plays Abanazar, the baddy we all love to boo, with plenty of menace and just a touch of camp cruelty. Entering to a flash, bang and puff of smoke, he grabs the attention immediately and never lets it go. If there is one small criticism it's that perhaps more could be made of Danny Potts as the Emperor; Danny is no small guy and is obviously very fit (I mean physically although there were quite a few around me who meant more in an eye-candy kinda way) and his role could be much more than as a foil to Jasmine & the Widow.
The starring role of Aladdin is played admirably by Gary Amers, with plenty of energy and a decent voice, although at times he looked a little star struck by the calibre of those around him, unsurprising as many of his scenes were played opposite Darlington's own supernova- Beth Stobbart. Beth, of Darlington Operatic Society fame, is well known to regular patrons of the Civic and once again her qualities stand out, this time as the magnetically beautiful Princess Jasmine. Melting guys' hearts with her smile and knowing little winks and wowing all with her wonderful voice, Beth adds local pride to the festive smorgasbord of emotions being served up and in the process must surely be adding to her huge number of fans.
Panto is a very English form of theatre - many of my foreign friends just don't know how to approach one and consequently they struggle to accept the 'anarchy' that ensues, but that's what this tradition is all about - forget the quintessential British reservedness and grant yourself one evening of self indulgent silliness - if laughter is the best medicine then Darlington Civic audiences will be the healthiest in all the land.