WHEN Leah Bell presents her annual Christmas show Silver Bells at Newcastle City Hall in late November that always feels like the start of Christmas, when she presents her pantomime at Consett's Empire Theatre it feels like the Yuletide party has well and truly started.

Since taking on pantomime producing duties at the County Durham "outpost" six years ago, she's raised the bar every time and this is no exception. It's a wonderful show: the script is sharp and funny, there are explosions, snowfalls, giant plastic balls, a wishing well, lots of music, dancing and two hours of non-stop fun.

Bell steps in as writer, producer, costume maker and star to ensure this panto punches well above its weight. The costumes look fantastic, the sets get better every year and the lighting was superb.

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Of course, that's the "extras", making it all look good. When it comes to the 13-strong cast Bell has created a hugely talented team with regulars who range from teenagers to the highly experienced Bell herself.

The story of Cinderella is as old as panto: a put-upon step sister, Cinderella (Courtney Veale) goes to the royal ball thanks to her fairy godmother (Harriet Povey) where the prince (James De Lauch May) falls in love with her. She has to leave at midnight and in her rush loses her shoe. The prince eventually finds "Cinders" when the shoe fits her. And they get married.

In between we are introduced to the dancing and singing of Buttons (Glen Richard Townsend) and the Ugly Sisters (Gareth Arthurs and Andy Power Tate) while Lorraine Crosby, as Baroness Hard Up, once again shows she's got a tremendous voice. Jason Jones is superb as Dandini. Dancers Anna Bartle and Ellie Caile complete the top-notch line up.

This is 100 per cent a family show and the audience become part of the cast, carried along by the frenetic pace of the piece. There's simply no let up: usually a comedian would fill in the time to change sets, Bell presents Bionic Funk (John Herald and Soner Dogan) a duo whose routines of body popping and hip-hop moves had the 400 or so primary school kids clapping and dancing along.

A Christmas treat.

Ed Waugh