Hackney Empire, London E8
Opened 4 December, 2008

Hackney’s annual Christmas pantomime is now largely unchallenged as London’s most enjoyable, even more so this year with no “posh panto” challenges from the Barbican or The Old Vic. Writer/director Susie McKenna has some 15 years’ experience of fashioning scripts (this year’s is a revival of her Christmas 2000 show) that combine traditional tales with topical and local gags, and assembling casts that can blend their own sharpness with a proficiency in the old-school panto styles.
In fact, these days, the cast more or less assembles itself. Clive Rowe has missed only one Hackney panto in recent years (when, bizarrely, he was playing a tumble drier in a musical at the National Theatre), and is now one of the finest dames in the business, belting out the musical numbers with a pair of lungs matched in capacity only by his sense of fun. He even manages to finesse a ludicrous health and safety ruling prohibiting the more recent panto tradition of throwing sweeties into the audience from onstage; Rowe simply moves into the auditorium and does it from there.
In the title role as the matron whose rashness endangers the safety of her anserine charge, the goose princess Priscilla who lays golden eggs, Rowe is joined by a squadron of other Hackney regulars. Soul diva Sharon D. Clarke appears as the good fairy Charity, and McKenna enjoys a spot of villainy herself as opposite number Vanity. As Rowe is to dames, so Kat B has become to daft-best-mate roles (Buttons, Wishee Washee and the like), and is here quite irrepressible as Mother Goose’s son Silly Billy. And as comic henchperson Frightening Freda, pocket-rocket actress and comedienne Tameka Empson is possibly the only person who could get away with cackling wickedly, “Aha!, innit?”
The sets are a touch on the credit-crunched side this year, and I would have preferred a more archetypal, custard-pie-type “slosh” scene to the plate-smashing routine that McKenna includes. But panto isn’t a genre to dissect; it’s about big, loud, silly fun. Kat B even had me high-fiving the venerable colleague across the aisle from me.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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