Hackney Empire, London E8 / Theatre Royal STratford East, London E15 / Shaw Theatre, London NW1 / New Wimbledon Theatre, London SW19
December, 2009
**** / *** / *** / **

Although there are only half a dozen or so tales in the traditional pantomime roster, it is unprecedented in my experience for virtually every London panto venue (Hammersmith only excepted) to choose the same one. Small wonder that Stratford East seemed unable to secure a conventionally-shaped magic lamp and has to cover up the deficiency with a line about it looking like a teapot. It may also be unsurprising that the more enjoyable shows are local productions at Hackney and Stratford, the less spirited being instead products of nationwide panto “stables” (Imagine at the Shaw and the colossal First Family Entertainment at Wimbledon).
All four shows tell the same tale, of course: young Aladdin, son of laundress Widow Twankey in old Peking, finds a lamp which summons a genie and so wins the hand of the princess and foils the wicked Abanazar. The individuality comes in the treatment of the various panto conventions and the script’s mixture of jokes old, new, borrowed and blue. Susie McKenna (who also directs) at Hackney has become a consummate hand at this combination over the past decade and more; I was, however, pleasantly surprised to see a strong showing at the Shaw in a rock’n’roll treatment of the tale by Iain Lauchlan and Will Brenton, best known as the creators of The Tweenies on BBC children’s television.
Some traditions, alas, are dying out. All four shows cast a man in implausible drag as Widow Twankey, although Derek Elroy at Stratford undermines his nicely camp performance by wearing slacks instead of the usual succession of outrageous frocks. But only Hackney adheres to the “principal boy” convention by casting a woman, Anna Jane Casey, as Aladdin. Paradoxically, it is in fact only when this gender-bending is eliminated that gender issues begin to appear, hence the awkward ambition of Stratford’s princess to become a truck driver. Also sadly missing is the “slosh” routine, a variant on the pie-fight which either soaks or gunks up performers and stage; firing high-powered water guns into the audience is no substitute for a good old mess. And only at Hackney do sweets get thrown into the audience: “What are they gonna do,” asks Clive Rowe’s Twankey in defiance of health and safety, “close us in January?” The point being that the Empire will indeed go dark after this season whilst it tries to sort out its financial viability.
Rowe is now one of the country’s finest pantomime dames. His combination of boundless energy, indefatigable good humour and a terrific, powerful singing voice would make him a priceless asset to any panto, but he is inextricably linked with Hackney. So are his equally able colleagues Tameka Empson (rather underused this year as the Empress) and Kat B, who rings the changes by making the genie an amiable goof rather than an imposing figure like Peter Straker’s titanium-lunged musical belter of a figure at Stratford. The most enjoyably villainous Abanazar is Michael Bertenshaw at Stratford, whose performance surprisingly eclipses even that of Brian Blessed at Wimbledon. “Underpowered” is not a word normally (or, perhaps, ever hitherto) associated with Blessed, but apart from repeated exhortations to us to boo him more loudly, he makes little connection with the audience. Nor does anyone in Ian Talbot’s end-of-the-pier staging, notwithstanding a succession of star names as the Genie. (I saw Ruby Wax at the end of her fortnight in the role; as I write, it is uncertain whether Pamela Anderson will arrive to do her stint.)
Panto is an acquired taste even for natives and bafflingly arcane for most non-Britons, but to get the full flavour of the experience you need a good, raucous house (though not quite as raucous as Stratford at my performance – my ears are still ringing) and a cast who give 120% whilst always letting us in on the joke of it all. In the capital, this year as almost every year, that means Hackney.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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