PANTO-LOVERS have had a frustrating time in the midst of the prolonged pandemic, but Cinderella at Darlington Hippodrome has proved to be well worth the wait.

Steps star Faye Tozer, as the glamorous Fairy Godmother, blends perfectly with cheeky comedian Patrick Monahan as a laugh-out-loud Buttons.

Pete Peverley and Phil Corbitt are deliciously obnoxious Ugly Sisters with a Geordie twist, Jacob Leeson is a dashing Prince Charming, nicely complemented by Spin as Dandini, while sweet-voiced Tanisha Butterfield makes an accomplished professional debut as Cinderella.

The show is a feast of frivolity and, quite rightly, there’s no attempt to hide from the topical issues of the day.

Hardly five minutes have gone by before Buttons announces that he’s been to lots of parties lately, including the one at 10 Downing Street - “They were all there – Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg…” – but this time it’s funny.

A declaration from Cinderella that she’s in love with the prince, is met with the retort: “Who do you think you are – Megan Markle?”

And, inevitably, there’s a timely injection of Covid jokes: “Don’t worry, I’m double-jabbed,” announces Buttons. “It was two for a Pfizer!”

It’s the sheer silliness that makes panto such a hoot, and Monahan is made for the part – warm, quick-witted and with naturally funny bones.

“Even at school, I was different from all the other five-year-olds,” he tells the Fairy Godmother. “Why?” she asks. “Cos I was 27,” he replies.

The best pantos also manage to keep adults, as well as the little ones, entertained with lines that are just risqué enough to make all ages chuckle without causing any offence.

“Why do all the Teletubbies go the toilet at the same time?” Buttons is asked. And the old lady next to me nearly chokes at the reply: “Because they’ve only got one Tinky Winky.”

Later in the show, The Ugly Sisters get away with the outrageous suggestion: “The Prince’s balls get bigger every year, don’t they?”

Then, one of the Ugly Sisters is asked: “Have you had the shish kebabs? “Aye, I had them all day yesterday,” she replies with a naughty tug at her bloomers.

It’s farty, fulsome, family fun and it’s been missed like an old friend who’s guaranteed to make us feel better at the party – wherever it happens to be held.

The show comes to a joyful climax with Faye Tozer leading a rousing Steps medley, with everyone who’s young at heart – from five to 80 – on their feet, dancing, singing and clapping.

These remain challenging times, and it can never be quite the same booing at the baddies through a facemask, but the brilliant cast members of Cinderella provide a couple of hours of escapism that’s simply good for the soul.

The last word on these occasions should always go to children, so what did my five-year-old granddaughter, Chloe, think of her very first panto? “It was sooooooooooooooo funny…and Buttons was just crazy,” was the verdict.

If you haven’t booked to see Cinderella yet, I suggest you make it a date – I think you’ll have a ball.