Hackney Empire, London E8
Opened 5 December, 2007

"Posh panto" may be gaining ground at the Barbican and the Old Vic, but connoisseurs of the genre have long known that writer/director Susie McKenna's productions at Hackney are the real deal. This one has the mandatory messy "slosh" scene, an undersea ballet, and the ghost routine is missing only because we are treated instead to a magnificent 12-foot gorilla. My trusty watch made it a zippy 13 minutes until the cue for the audience to shout out, "Behind you!" and a reasonable 31 minutes to the first "Oh yes, it is!"/"Oh, no, it isn't!" shouting match; however, it took a disappointing two hours 12 mins until principal boy Dick slapped his/her thigh.

McKenna's roster of panto artists is headed by a mighty trio. From her arsenal of characters Tameka Empson chooses her amiable-doddering persona for Fairy Bowbells, and Kat B is now one of the finest panto comedy sidekicks I know; his Idle Jack is the perfect silly big brother, his good nature never flagging even when some precocious young punters pre-empt one of his big punchlines. But the powerhouse performance is Clive Rowe's as Sarah the Cook. One of the glorious oddities of this season is that serious critics can laud a burly man for making such an implausible transvestite, but Rowe deserves it all and more. Whether belting out show tunes or nestling the face of Alderman Fitzwarren between his ample prosthetic bosoms, Rowe never lets up for a second. If we could harness that immense natural energy, our greenhouse-emission worries would be over.

David Ashley follows up a successful Ugly Sister last year by making an agreeably sneering, slinky King Rat. Hannah-Jane Fox is an appealing Dick apart from her musical-theatre nose-voice in song; she is matched if not bettered by Sophia Ragavelas as Dick's beloved Alice, who this time takes an equal part in all his adventures; "You don't know what it's like to be a girl!" she complains to Dick, leading them both to regard the audience quizzically for a beat. Steven Edis's score runs from contemporary R&B to Toots and the Maytals' reggae classic "Monkey Man", a duet for fairy and big ape. It's all enough to keep a sadly less-than-full house bubbling over for two and a half hours.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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