AS the curtain went up on a new era of theatre in Darlington last November, the refurbished Hippodrome was described as the "best thing ever to happen" to the town by then council leader Bill Dixon.

Given the town's railway heritage, it was a bold and somewhat controversial statement to make.

But there was also a much bigger concern on the minds of all theatre lovers and supporters of the near £12m project. Would such a costly and major refurbishment result in a packed auditorium and a new generation of theatre lovers flocking to see big name stars on the stage?

In her interview with The Northern Echo today, theatre director Lynda Winstanley suggests the answer is a resounding yes, with shows already booked in for 2021.

"We have had the most fantastic response to the building and to the shows," she said.

"People have loved it and they seem to have appreciated what we have done with it, and that is quite tricky with such a much loved theatre.

"It has been especially nice that we get a lot of theatre companies and actors and actresses returning to Darlington who perhaps haven’t seen the building since the restoration and their response has also been fantastic.

"They have particularly appreciated some of the improvements we have made to the dressing rooms, they were a bit primitive and unchanged since 1907 and now they are very comfortable and people have enjoyed spending time in the theatre."

Despite the range of shows that have been on offer at the Hippodrome over the last 12 months, the Christmas pantomime always remains the focal point.

This year, it will be a month long production of Aladdin, staring Louie Spence, who will be playing the Spirit of the Ring, Zoe Birkett, who will star as the beautiful Princess Jasmine, and Liam Mellor who stars as Wishee Washee, as well as Robin Askwith as the evil Abanazar and Eric Potts as Widow Twankey.

“I can hardly believe really it has been a year since the last one," said Lynda.

"But in a way panto never goes away because we are constantly working on panto all year round so it is never far from our thinking, and we are already starting to think about next year’s pantomime as well.

"I think you can expect comedy. Although Louis is fantastic dancer, he is also very funny, so I am expecting some great comedy action between the three of them.

"On top of that, I think we’re going to have a spectacular magical feel to the production. Aladdin is always a very magical show and full of colour and surprises.

"There are some fantastic illusions within it and holding the whole thing together is a very strong musicality.

"Musicality, comedy, spectacle – w have got all that wrapped up in a wonderful and traditional Christmas story."

Some of this year's cast are returning for their second pantomime at the Hippodrome, after staring in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs last year.

They know that theatre has more competition than ever before as it tries to attract families to part with their hard earned cash for a few hours entertainment, but they remain confident it has a role to play.

“It is so important that people still come to the theatre," said Zoe.

"I have always seen theatre as an escapism for a lot of people, even for me when I go to the theatre.

"There is a lot going on within our current state in the world. People need to go somewhere to escape, and let their hair down for two-and-a-half hours.

"I think theatre is one of the most important places to go for fun, for a date night, for laughter and for just taking your mind off things, so it is important that we keep the arts going especially in the local community."

"It is brilliant – I love pantomime," said Liam.

"This is my 13th year in pantomime and it is about my 20th show because we do Easter, summer and Christmas pantomimes now.

"Pantomime is the first bit of theatre that children see and it is magical. This is the show that makes kids want to come and see more shows.

"I used to go to the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield and see the shows there and I am now passing that on."

For full details of Aladdin at Darlington Hippodrome and to book tickets, visit or call 01325 405405.