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It's panto time!

Pantomime season is upon us again. Entertainment Editor Gordon Barr slaps his thigh and takes a sneak look.

Pantomime season is upon us again. Entertainment Editor Gordon Barr slaps his thigh and takes a sneak look.

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Jill Halfpenny in Jack and the Beanstalk

There are just 19 days to go until Christmas, and Geordie actress Jill Halfpenny needs no reminding.

She's panicking already. Usually she has all her pressies bought by now but not this year - she's just been too busy.

And with panto season starting up again, there will be no let-up for the Gateshead lass, who plays Mother Nature in the Theatre Royal's Jack and the Beanstalk from next week, alongside hubby-to-be Craig Conway.

"I am so unbelievably behind. Usually by this time I would have had most people's presents in and I haven't even got one," she admits. "I've not even thought about it. In fact, I'm scared of the thought that I've got so much to do and I'm going to be working every day."

She is, though, relishing being back at the Royal, where she proved a huge hit last year as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. It's the same case back again this time around, with the addition of Craig, who plays the baddie, Snot Gobbler.

"It's lovely to see everyone back again and we're having a really good time," says Jill. "It's a totally different kind of pantomime and, of course, it has darker elements to it as well.

"There's a lot to fit in and technically it's a huge show, which is very exciting for us because we've got flying and giants and beanstalks - all sorts. It's great working with Craig, he's going to be fantastic. I'm sure there will be little bits and piece of banter on stage between the two of us! But I'm not giving anything away. You'll have to come and see it!"

She is keeping tight-lipped about the wedding too. "We've set a date, everything is in hand. It's all going through and it's very exciting," teases Jill, who has just finished filming a second series of the BBC drama Waterloo Road.

After panto at the Royal, she's off to Birmingham Rep to appear in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. "Chalk and cheese, panto to Chekhov," laughs Jill who will spend Christmas day with Craig and their parents.

Craig himself is having a bit of a chalk and cheese experience, having just toured the country in a psycho-sexual thriller, and is e joying working with Jill. "It is really nice to be working on something together again," he says.

"After all the years I've been at Northern Stage, I was never in a Christmas show. I was always taking time out as I was playing the lead roles in the main tours, so when it came to Christmas, that was a kind of break really.

"But I always wanted to and I've always wanted to work at the Theatre Royal, so this is my first time on that stage and I'm really excited about that. And I'm really happy I get to play the villain in this.

"I hope there will lots of boos and hisses. The panto is just full of energy and there are so many talented people in the cast and I watched them last year quite a few times so I was a bit nervous about joining a cast that seemed so really tight, but they have welcomed me in and they are just amazing. It's loads of fun."

Jack and The Beanstalk is at the Theatre Royal Newcastle from December 11 to January 20. Ticket details on 0870 905 5060 or log on to www.theatreroyal.co.uk

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