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 laugher 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 Durham Gala is yet again a riotous mix of song & dance which will have everyone in tears of laughter (tho not always for the same reason). Clearly aimed at the kids, the script stays clean and simple, the use of musical numbers fresh and engaging while the visual gags, especially the laundry scene, will never fail to get everyone laughing (or cowering if you’re in the front 6 rows). Directed by the brilliant (in both talent and name) Gareth Tudor Price, this is another sure-fire success his the every growing list of box office smashes.
Opening with my favourite panto villain, Neil Armstrong, as Abanazar, ensures that the audience are left in no doubt that this is as traditional panto as ever there was. Looking very much like an evil Harold Meeker (from Rentaghost) he elicits all the boos from the kids while playfully abusing their parents. Neil has been playing this type of role for many years and has honed it to such a fine art that I hazard to suggest he probably gets booed throughout the year, not just in panto season. The other Gala stalwart, Paul Hartley, is back, this time as Wishee Washee, and like Neil, brings his perfected panto craft that the kids lap up in spades. The perfect foil for the evil Abanazar, Paul’s Wishee is daftness personified.
Adding to the well known panto cast are some ‘newbies’ – fresh from their run in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Durham, Chris Connel, Viktoria Kay and Robert Hudson make their Panto bows. Chris, as the panto dame, Widow Twankey, had a choice to make, either play it totally camp (a la Christopher Biggins) or bring a more butch element to the role – Chris has gone for the latter and it works perfectly, he never tries to disguise his wonderful northern accent and coupled with his imposing figure in a frock he makes for a quite intimidating dame; if he picks you as his ‘boyfriend’ then you’d better say yes and quick. Viktoria plays the Emperor’s royal policeman and is a fabulous comedic sidekick. Sporting a silent movie style tash which has a life of its own, she is reminiscent of the Keystone Cop Sergeant, full of energy and a huge hit with the kids. Finally Robert, as the Emperor, has the regal poise and authority needed to demand obedience, but underneath there is clearly a sense of fun just waiting for the chance to break free - their homage to Wilson, Keppel and Betty (Google them, you'll know who I mean) had me literally gasping for breath.
Of course, Aladdin wouldn’t be Aladdin without the lead and his Princess. Matt McGoldrick is a very youthful ‘street urchin turned prince’, a friendly and engaging guy who draws the young kids into the land of make believe and keeps them rooting for him throughout. Christina Andrew is every bit the princess; beautiful, kindly and there is clearly some great chemistry between the two. Ably supported by very talented backing dancers including the uber-lithe Andrew Wragg and Antony Edwards, and the dynamic duo of Jade Bailey and Sophie Taylor, the whole stage is filled with light, colour, movement and fun – a perfect and heady recipe for the best possible start to the festive season.
The Gala pride themselves on providing a wonderful family panto and have rightfully built a reputation of being one of the very best in the north – over 28,000 came to see last year’s and I wouldn’t be surprised if that number is matched again this year. So, if laughter is the best medicine, then go and get your fix and remain healthy all winter.