YULETIDE shows aside, this was the Alun Armstrong Theatre's first proper panto and it's a welcome addition to the region's Christmas festivities.

Using his wealth of stage experience, Lee Brannigan directs and stars in the show as Nurse Bella Bluebell, delivering a traditional pantomime that may not have the production values of the North East's more established rivals but what it lacks in substance it more than makes up for in slickness, talent and enthusiasm.

Nurse Bella with her sidekick Muddles (comedian Lee Kyle) are the core of a faultless team that includes the evil Queen Morganna (Andrea Atkinson) and her magic mirror. The Queen's jealousy of Snow White (Sarah Lumley) leads her to attempt to kill her young rival, firstly using the dastardly hunter Seymour Snarl (Martin Anderson).

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However, protected by the seven dwarfs in the forest, Snarl is repulsed so the Queen takes matters into her own hands and poisons Snow White. Only a kiss from Snow White's true love can break the spell. Up steps Prince Charlie (Jon Dylan Brown) and the wedding party gets started.

The principle singers all hit their marks and the principle dancers Beth Shannon, Rachael Ward and Rhiane Finley add to the spectacle whose icing on the Christmas cake was having Alun Armstrong on film as the Man In The Mirror.

Adapting Dale Meek's script, the party may start at the dénouement but the fun starts at the very beginning of this cracking show and never lets up as the children are constantly called upon to sing, dance and scream "it's behind you" and "oh, no you didn't". Even during the 12 Days of Christmas the five toilet rolls were flung into the audience, creating mayhem each time.

Indeed, a 10am show with a packed house of school children at this small (but delightful) venue raised the roof. In fact, it's a wonder people as far away as Sunderland don't complain about the noise.

It may be a well-worn cliché but the Alun Armstrong Theatre panto can truly claim to be a small panto with a big heart.

Ed Waugh