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,
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
. 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