I think my ears may still be ringing from this year’s pantomime at Sunderland Empire.
Despite this being a morning performance of Jack and the Beanstalk, the audience, made up mostly of school groups, were full of beans and were whipped into a deafening mass of shriekers and booers by this most festive of traditions.
After a slightly slow start, this production proved a real grower and by the end even the most Scrooge-like of audience members were on their feet joining in with the silliness.
That’s thanks in part to a cast of seasoned performers who know how to work a crowd.
Acting the fool this year is West End actor Charlie Guest who has bags of energy as Simple Simon.
Simon says have a good time and the very vocal kids did just that as he had them whooping with joy and joining in on humourous little ditties, such as a song in honour of his beloved Daisy the Cow, who proves to be a popular, yet flatulent, member of the cast.
His mam, dame Nellie Trott, is played by local lad Philip Meeks. There ain’t nothing like a Mackem dame, and it’s refreshing to hear the matriarch’s funny one liners and quips punctuated with “pet”, in true Sunderland fashion. As you’d expect, she gets the best costumes and there’s some imaginative frocks in there, ranging from one that’s made to look like a full English breakfast to an SAFC number in which she cuts quite the dash. (Get her signed up as the new Black Cat’s centre half, she couldn’t do any worse than the current team.)
She bounces off baddie Fleshcreep well, who’s played with relish by Coronation Street and Emmerdale actor Bill Ward. He’s got a great stage presence as he snarls at the crowd and sucks up to the giant, described as a 20ft Trump - if that analogy doesn’t frighten the kids, I don’t know what will!
Hero of the piece is David Barrett as Jack who’s taken a break from touring in Legally Blonde the musical to play the title role. You can tell he’s come from a musical theatre background and he really plays to this strength in the singing numbers, which are a blend of original tracks and well-known pop hits, such as Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do and Pink’s What About Us.
His love interest is played by Jade Natalie who adds a feisty edge to the archetypal damsel in distress role.
Jack and Jill don’t go up the hill in this fairytale, however, instead they find themselves at the top of the beanstalk in the second half, which is when this panto really comes into its own.
The leafy ladder to the giant’s lair has been planted by the vegetable fairy, who is played with the same ditsy warmth Janine Duvitski imbues in her characters in Benidorm and One Foot in the Grave.
Make sure to grab your glasses from the ushers for the second half as the panto turns 3D for the giant’s thundering entrance.
The use of special effects helps to set this production apart from previous years and gives you more of an exhilarating experience for your buck as Jack battles with the giant and the goodies find themselves in an abandoned graveyard for a well executed ‘he’s behind you’ segment.
The ghosts, spiders and other creepy crawlies that spring from the screen aren’t real, of course, but you can’t help but duck as they fly towards you.
Cue screams of glee from the little ones. I did warn you about those decibel levels.