Hackney Empire, London E8
Opened 2 December, 2010
When Clive Rowe sings Nilsson’s “Without You”, you’re grateful for the advance notice the song gives you. Its muted, reflective beginning gives you time to brace yourself against the moment when the belting chorus drives you back in your seat like the guy in the old cassette commercials. Rowe’s lung-power is matched by his overall energy, so that this respected musical-theatre player is also one of the finest pantomime dames in the business. He is a major component of Hackney’s reputation for putting on the most enjoyable panto of the holiday season. The man is simply irrepressible. Even if some of his giggling moments may be scripted (as in many pantos), he always seems entirely spontaneous and to be having as much fun pratting about in daft frocks as we are watching him do so.
Other significant Hackney assets include Kat B, who has now graduated from kids’-mate roles to a slightly more mature portrayal of, er, a Jamaican snowman (cool runnings indeed); Sharon D Clarke, who only ever now features as a recorded voice but even when disembodied can match the full-figured Rowe in vocal power; and of course writer/director Susie McKenna, who knows how to mix traditional elements with topical references (this year even the Go Compare tenor gets a look-in). As an indicator, the musical repertoire here ranges from the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” (and how appropriate to be singing “mazel tov” on a Hanukah press night) to the old novelty number “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life”.
McKenna’s script has been tweaked since its last outing in 2005, but it still contains the occasional element of woolliness or cop-out, such as the fact that wicked Giant Blunderbore is not killed but simply cut off in his cloud-top castle. It’s a bit wet, too, for Jack to pair off with fairy princess Sweet Pea (it’ll never last: he’s a working-class lad from Hackneydale, she’s a mystical anthropomorphised legume). But the Empire has been dark for much of this year due to funding problems, and the joy at having it back in lights for the season is palpable. Most of all, though, it is the joy this company brings to an evening of raucous seasonal silliness.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage