Hackney Empire, London E8
Opened 7 December, 2005

For several years, Susie McKenna's pantomimes at the Hackney Empire have been pretty much the most reliably raucous seasonal fun in London. This year, though, things feel a little subdued. I suspect that the reason might be McKenna's attempt to ring the changes on straightforward panto formula. She knows you can't mess with the core set-up (the milking of the pantomime cow and the cooking scene are both present and correct, as are the local gags about Hackney's new green dustbins and extended parking-meter hours, and by my watch it was a mere seven minutes before the first, "Oh, yes, it is!"/"Oh, no, it isn't!" exchange), but various bits have been tweaked just enough to upset the show's footing.

The beginning is inventive, with shadow-puppetry, but makes for a slow start as Sweet Pea the Fairy alternates her spoken doggerel couplets with verses of song. It also provides a woolly liberal back-story, suggesting that the tension between the village of Hackneydale and Giant Blunderbore is the result of tragic misunderstandings, fault on both sides, blah blah; this paves the way for an ending two and a half hours later in which Jack doesn't kill the giant but leaves him to rumble in isolation in the clouds with his golden harp. Matt Dempsey's dashing Jack also finally pairs off, not with a princess or with the girl next door, but with Sweet Pea. (It'll never last: he's a working-class lad, she's a mystical anthropomorphised legume.)

Even Rowe (who's now one of the best dames in the business) seems relatively muted, although for Rowe that means only attracting complaints about the noise from as far afield as Surrey, when usually his belting voice can reach Belgium. The moment I heard the opening chords of Nilsson's "Without You", I physically braced myself to avoid being knocked through the back wall when he got to the chorus. Empson's comic talents are underused in the stroppy-little-girl shtick of Off Her Trolley Molly, and Terel Nugent is fairly one-note as her friend Silly Billy. But it's a solid cast all round (McKenna herself appears along with Michael Kirk as the Giant's boo-hiss minions), and you would not feel anything missing from the evening unless you knew from experience that a Hackney panto can be even more pell-mell.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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