STARS OF THE SHOW: Liam Mellor, Zoe Birkett and Louie Spence are looking forward to panto season at the Darlington Hippodrome
STARS OF THE SHOW: Liam Mellor, Zoe Birkett and Louie Spence are looking forward to panto season at the Darlington Hippodrome

It will soon be panto time... oh yes it will... and the stars of Aladdin, this year's stage spectacular at the Darlington Hippodrome dropped by to launch the show. Stuart Laundy went along to meet them.

AS a dancer and choreographer, Louie Spence has seen the world.

But it is panto that has given the popular TV personality the chance to see much more of his home country.

He takes star billing as the Genie of the Ring in Aladdin at the Darlington Hippodrome.

“This is my ninth year in panto and you get to spend six weeks in a different place in the country each time,” he says.

“Touring with The Spice Girls, I went all over the world but I had never really travelled round my own country and doing this is quite a nice way of seeing the country.

“You also find out what great people there are up and down the country.”

This is one reason why he continues to sign up for what will be another rigorous and energy sapping few weeks.

Another is a work ethic instilled into him when he was young.

“I came from nothing. I have been fortunate and had a bit of luck,” says the London-born, Essex-based entertainer.

“I started dancing when I was five, took part in my first stage show at 13, went to stage school, and I have never looked down on any kind of performance. It is work.

“I had a good bit of fortune. When I became famous, I was in the right place in the right time, but I have also been dressed as a soldier in Selfridges. I did what I had to do.”

Next year he will celebrate his 50th birthday and he is aware he will not be able to maintain the high energy levels he demands of himself for two performances each day.

“The day I can’t do it, that would be it. I will keep going for as long as I physically can.

“You can’t do panto unless you enjoy it – although it is only a few weeks, it takes so much out of you.”

For Zoe Birkett, local lass made good, it is the lure of home comforts which keeps her coming back to Darlington for the panto season.

Born in Consett but brought up in the town, she was a 16-year-old Carmel schoolgirl when she hit the big time on ITV's Pop Idol.

That seems a lifetime away now she is 33 and mum to a little girl, but she has compiled an impressive body of music and theatre work and continues to be an in-demand performer.

“If people say to me I have been very lucky I am not offended, but they don’t know the work that’s going into it,” she says.

“To survive in this business is extremely hard; to have a long career is even harder.”

At the moment she is playing Justice in the touring production of Rock of Ages, which by happy coincidence was playing at the Hippodrome during the week of the panto launch.

After her stint as Princess Jasmine in Aladdin, Zoe will rejoin the cast of Rock of Ages for the remainder of the tour next year.

“I have always had a base in Darlington and I have a place here, but it’s quite hard to come back to see family and friends, so coming back to do the panto is a huge draw for me,” she says.

“This year is different for me – usually, I am the wicked queen but this time I am the princess.

“It will be fun and you don’t take yourself too seriously. You get a different reaction from each audience and because it’s live and it’s panto, lots of things can go wrong.

“What better way over Christmas than to spend your days doing something you love.”

While for Louie and Zoe panto is strictly a once-a-year affair, the opposite is true for funnyman Liam Mellor.

Immediately after changing out of his costume for Aladdin, in which he plays Wishee Washee, the Redcar-based entertainer was dashing off to rehearsals for a touring show of The Wizard of Oz which is being staged in the school half term holiday.

As well as taking the role of the Scarecrow, he wrote the script and is also directing the show.

Once his run in Darlington ends, he will be back out at Easter next year for a production on the Little Mermaids before a summer season beckons in Weymouth.

“These days, it is more a holiday thing than just a Christmas thing,” he says.

Aladdin will be his second stint at the Hippodrome – he was Muddles in last year’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – and he is happy to be back.

“Panto is really big. There is as much as you will get in the West End,” he says.

“The guys who do the effects here are out of this world. The flying carpet – you will not see a single string.”

But just as important is the camaraderie among the cast, crew and theatre staff.

“You become one big family and they are friends you make for life.”

Aladdin runs from Saturday, December 8, until Sunday, January 6, next year. Details of performance times and ticket prices are available online at www. darlingtonhippodrome.