Review: Robinson Crusoe, Gala Theatre, Durham, until January 6

Robinson Crusoe at Gala Theatre, Durham
Robinson Crusoe at Gala Theatre, Durham

Local boys Paul Hartley and Neil Armstrong are back in charge for this year’s Gala show, and it is their most ambitious yet.

The Gala panto has grown noticeably more high spec in recent years and this is no exception, with genuinely ambitious effects and staging to create the mysterious Island of Flames.

Of course, any panto is only as good as the script and performances and Armstrong and Hartley’s familiarity with the format means there’s plenty of fun to be had. Poor Daniel Defoe must be spinning in his grave, however, at the liberties that have been taken with his plot.

Out goes the poor traveller, marooned and alone, and in come pirates, a water goddess and a race against time to beat the evil Captain Blackheart to a mystical pearl. Armstrong relishes the villain’s role as much as ever, winding the audience up at every opportunity, though this a slightly less moustache-twirlingly arch turn than in previous years.

Jamie Brown is back this year, after starring as Jack in last year’s show, and again demonstrates he has the charisma - and the voice - to handle a leading role. The panto tradition of the Principal Boy is subverted, with Sunderland actress Lauren Waine playing feisty Polly Perkins, who is masquerading as a man in order to serve as First Mate on Blackheart’s ship.

She makes a spectacularly unconvincing bloke, not least since she is wearing a skirt, but throws herself into the role with thigh-slapping gusto and shows off a genuinely impressive singing voice. Also able to carry a tune is Jayne Mackenzie, as sea goddess Aqua Marina, popping up at regular intervals to give the plot a hearty shove.

And, of course, no panto is complete without its fool and dame, and here the Gala is particularly well served. Paul Hartley is a genuinely talented physical comedian and his Billy Bob Crusoe works well with mum Connie, played by Paul Dunn, who is clearly having a whale of a time. The pair throw themselves in their roles - sometimes literally - and had the children in the audience screaming.

It’s well worth letting yourself get marooned for a couple of hours in Durham this year. KEVIN CLARK