THREE years into penning the annual pantomime for Durham’s Gala Theatre, the region’s best baddie, Seaham’s Neil Armstrong, has every right to feel over the moon as the venue continues to break box office records.

He and Geordie co-creator, co-drector and comedian Paul Hartley have even taken on the more unlikely subject of Robinson Crusoe in their stride. “We’ve got the script written, so that’s good,” Armstrong says modestly. “I think I can honestly say that we’ve got a nice system worked out now. You learn so many lessons quite quickly and we have a little routine so that we know where all the actors are going before we start rehearsals.

“Robinson Crusoe is different because not so many people know the story. So, when you sit down to write something like this you know it’s not going to be like Aladdin where the audience is aware of what happens by the interval. It’s mapped out already, while Robinson Crusoe is a blank canvas and you can do what the hell you like... as long as you put a guy on a desert island.”

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Challenges included the role of Man Friday, Crusoe’s companion on the island, and making the plot work as a pantomime.

“We came up with a novel idea for Man Friday which we are keeping under wraps until the show opens. Funnily enough I did a workshop in my old home town of Seaham about Robinson Crusoe (which featured Daniel Defoe’s fictional retelling of the real life tale of marooned seaman Alexander Selkirk). Then we looked at the Ladybird version and realised how difficult it was to turn this into a panto.

“There are rules in panto where you go from adventure, into a song, then comedy and, possibly, some magic and then back to the plot. We decided to set our story in Durham and even have a scene at Seaham Harbour docks where Robinson sets sail from.”

Armstrong’s villainous captain is told by goddess of the sea Aqua Marina (Jayne Mackenzie) that Robinson Crusoe (Jamie Brown) holds the key to hidden treasure. Crusoe is tricked into sailing up the River Wear to Durham before heading off onto the high seas.

Isn’t Armstrong screaming out to play a hero after ten years of being Durham’s booed baddie? “No,” he chuckles. “I have far more fun. I love having boos ringing in my ears for weeks on end. It’s not a problem. I’ve always tried to make the Gala’s villain funny rather than scary. If you just go out there for 73 shows and scare the living daylights out of little children then it just doesn’t work. You’ve got to try and make the adults laugh and the kids laugh and then give them a fright. I always try and make myself a fun character that can go a bit darker if need be.”

The actor has seen great change at the venue in his decade of evil doings for panto. “There’s only me and Paul who are the constants at the Gala. He’s been in the show for the past 15 years and when I turned up for my first panto, I never imagined I’d still be here ten years later. It’s frightening directing the thing, but that’s how it’s turned out. Simon Stallworthy, who used to write and direct and I think is down in London now, was a lovely fellah and we felt we were picking the baton from him. The attitude he showed in creating North-East scripts was great,” says Armstrong.

Normally, Spennymoor takes a bit of flak from Hartley, but this time Hartlepool is due to take some gentle ribbing.

“I think it might have a little to do with football fortunes. I’m a Black Cat supporter and Paul’s black and white, so our own football teams have completely changed around. We kind of avoid putting too many football gags in because Durham is split between Sunderland and Newcastle fans, although I did once announce the result of the derby game that day... getting as many boos as cheers,” he says.

Casting is a process involving the gala’s manager Robin Byers, musical director Mark Thompson plus Armstrong and Hartley. “Our choreographer also has a say, but a lot of suggestions come from myself and Paul because we work with a shed-load of actors each year. We are very keen that the local acting fraternity gets a look in. We don’t go to London any more to audition, which is what used to happen, because we think if someone wants a job in Durham then they should be prepared to come up here to audition. If I’m after a job in Norwich then I expect to go there to audition for the role. We pre-wire a couple of scenes, get people to sing a song and take it from there.”

Armstrong is delighted to have found Sunderland’s Lauren Waine who he first noticed doing a production of The Fifteen Streets three years ago. “We were only in one scene, but I knew we had to keep her in mind because she’d previously trained at Paul McCartney’s drama college and then I saw on Facebook she was back in the area. She was the first girl through the door and she’s got the part of Polly Perkins (the love interest for Brown’s Crusoe).

“You get to know the people you can trust. Jamie is such a team player and nothing but 100 per cent concentrated. Paul is playing Robinson’s younger brother, which is a bit of a joke in itself. Paul also looks after the family’s parrot Pecky (John Murdoch), who has gone to seed a bit. They all inadvertently end up on the high seas,” says Armstrong.

The co-writer and co-director claims not to look at ticket sales. “People just seem to turn up, but I know we did about 97 per cent last year. We’ve bunged in a few extra shows this year to see what happens,” says the man who is already working on next year’s production.

  • Robinson Crusoe runs at Durham Gala from Thursday, November 23 to Saturday, January 6. Box Office: galadurham.co.uk or 03000-266600