Hackney Empire, London E8
Opened 7 December, 2006

The Hackney Empire describes its seasonal fare as "London's favourite panto", and I've certainly always enjoyed the directness of show and audience alike. But I approached this year's with some trepidation: how would it shape up in the absence of Clive Rowe, one of the country's finest dames but currently playing (believe it or not) a tumble drier in Caroline, or Change at the National Theatre?

Writer/director Susie McKenna is aware of this absence, too. She works in playful references to Rowe, with portraits of him in drag as "the Queen" and a recorded message. I suspect that Rowelessness may also have influenced her choice of a tale where the grotesquerie is spread around a little. Of the Ugly Sisters, David Ashley's Lucinda is not quite as repellent as Michael Kirk's Lavinia, but Ashley wins out by dint of greater energy and much greater height. Tameka Empson as Cinders' wicked stepmother, Countess Prunella, works the audience with her customary flair but isn't entirely at home as a baddie. As Baron Hardup, revered musical stager Peter Straker is no slouch at the comedy and gets a brace of numbers to belt out, one of which even involves some James Brown fake-collapse business.

But the folk we have to cheer are underpowered. Donna Steele's Cinderella is wholesome enough, but even with a mouth that size she sings through her nose instead. Steven Cree is radically miscast as Prince Charming, looking and sounding more like a Clydeside welder. When Ben Fox as Buttons comes on "disguised" in a pair of glasses, he jokes, "No, it isn't Harry Potter!" though in fact he bears an uncanny resemblance to elderly comic actor Anton Rodgers. A "Roaring Twenties" motif in the staging comes and goes fairly gratuitously; Dandini's big musical moment is a world away, describing the preparations for the Prince's ball by only slightly rewriting "Putting It Together" from Sondheim's Sunday in The Park With George. Other musical sources range from Lemar to the commercial for Sheila's Wheels motor insurance, by way of a quick burst of Fairy Godmother Janet Kay's 1979 reggae hit "Silly Games".

But the gags come thick and fast, along with all the traditional panto features (11 mins by my watch to the first "Behind you!", 35 mins to "Oh, yes, it is!"/"Oh, no, it isn't!"); the transformation scene is nicely staged in black light, there's a terrific animatronic flying horse, and a parody of the "spesh" as Empson does some awful magic tricks. This is solid rather than classic Hackney – still salt of the earth, but not quite rough diamond.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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