Review: Sunderland Empire's Pantomime Beauty and The Beast
Wearside's biggest pantomime never disappoints, but this year's show topped all others
Although the blanket of snow has melted and a speed-walk through the rain leads us to Sunderland Empire, our festive spirits aren’t dampened. We stop to check out the theatre’s Christmas tree and the choir singing Christmas songs on the stairs. Once we’re seated, after fuelling on gingerbread Santas and chocolate treats and making our way through the rose-scattered theatre, we admire the set with castle turrets on either side of the stage (the enchanted rose in its glass dome is lit up by fairy lights to the right).
The show begins with a handsome prince transforming into the Beast after an enchantress puts a spell on him. Then the scene is set in Pallion, which we’re told is far away from the Wear – and actually in France. The Belle we meet (Milkshake!’s Olivia Birchenough) is a book-lover, but far more modern than Disney’s character, and not afraid to stand up to Hugo (the Empire’s Gaston-inspired baddie). Within the first 10 minutes of the show we’re treated to Barbie and Greggs references, which sets the tone for this rollercoaster ride of a show, which has us in stitches.
Miss Rory and Tom Whalley (back for a fourth year by popular demand) are the iconic duo of the Empire’s annual panto, known for their sidesplittingly funny panto puns. Tom’s signature ‘alreet’ was a hit with the kids (and big kids), this time followed by a ‘oui oui Louis’ – it is France, after all. Who knew there could be so many bakery and cheese puns? They were on form this time around playing mum and son, with Miss Rory quickly targeting a member of the front row as a love interest.
Their comedy reaches an all-time high after the interval when they both join Belle for the iconic ‘he’s behind you’ ghost scene (which is funny no matter how many times you’ve seen it done, trust us). Tom was stuck behind the curtain, Olivia was laughing so much she could barely get her lines out and in all the chaos Miss Rory called ‘Louis La Plonk’ Tom – but, as they say, the show must go on, and moments like this make the frenzy of pantomime even more fun, right?
Keeping everyone in line and using rhyme to pass time is the fabulous Charlie Hardwick who, with a sprinkling of fairy dust, doesn’t take her role as Fairy too seriously. She’s more than happy to mic drop and strut around the stage. But the star of the show for us is Samuel Wyn Morris as the Beast. It’s a brave move to cast a West End star in a panto, but amongst all the craziness, Samuel almost blew the roof off the Empire with his powerful vocals and he brought a touch of drama to the role, even when he was singing a version of Love Story by Taylor Swift from the turret. Pantos are always a good laugh but it’s rare to feel so emotional at this sort of show. It’s that contrast that, in our opinion, makes this one of the must-see pantos this year.
Belle’s iconic yellow gown and her wedding dress are a real credit to the costume department (although Miss Rory’s La Greggs frock and Wonder Woman outfit deserve a special mention too), the Beast’s transition into the prince (as he spins on a harness) is effortless, and the hit-after-hit soundtrack had the audience toe-tapping throughout.
When we say this could be Sunderland Empire’s best panto yet, we think the audience agrees. Members of the audience are already on their feet and a roar of an applause means Tom was barely heard when he announced next year’s panto is Jack and The Beanstalk – once again starring Miss Rory and Tom Whalley. You’ll see us there!