Hackney Empire, London – until 6 January 2019
There’s something truly magical about panto at the Hackney Empire. Writer/director Susie McKenna delivers her 20th (oh yes it is!) festive production with a show that captures the diversity of her London patch, yet cleverly avoids cultural appropriation and all the while managing to maintain the joyous irreverence that makes pantomime such a glorious British Christmas tradition.
Set on the fictional island of Ha-Ka-Ney, McKenna’s company of Mare Street stalwarts launders the age-old Middle-Eastern cum Chinese fairytale into a 21st-century iteration that it is anything but washed out. Obeying the genre’s conventions meticulously, Gemma Sutton is the titular Principal Boy (as McKenna lobs in a bravely scripted swipe at gender-fluidity too). Sutton of course, as this website has long proclaimed, is up there with the best of her generation in UK’s musical theatre and it shows. She brings poise and precision to the role, capping it off with her wondrous voice. Her leading the company in The Greatest Showman’s ‘This Is Me’ is spine-tingling.
Making his return to Hackney’s panto after a short sabbatical, Clive Rowe shares the bill-topping honours with his wonderful Widow Twankey. Showmen aside, Rowe is arguably the greatest Dame of our time. His presence is sublime with razor-sharp wit and precision timing, making each one of the corniest, smuttiest gags sparkle. Rowe’s gift for pantomime is a rarity and his beautifully frocked, twerking Twankey is worth the ticket price on its own.
In time-honoured tradition, McKenna lampoons the lunacy of our leaders, with Brexit and assorted Tories coming in for some well-deserved flak. But if there is one criticism of the piece, it is the bias. Given the current debacle that is manifest throughout our political class, there is no reason to have let Labour off the hook quite so lightly.
Other top-notch Hackney regulars comprise the classy company. Notables are Tameka Empson, released by the Beeb from her duties on Albert Square to play the Empress, Julie Yammanee’s Princess, Kat B’s energetic Genie and Tony Timberlake’s dastardly Abanazar. Heck, they’ve even roped in stage legend (and Mckenna’s missus) Sharon D. Clarke to voice a Goddess!
Whilst the show’s budget may not be as palladian as some, not only are Hackney’s tickets affordable but the show’s professionalism and panache are a treat, well earning it the moniker of “London’s No 1 panto”. McKenna continues to create the very essence of pantomime – a show that is firmly rooted in its local community, yet packing a hilarious punch with technical excellence. (And did this review even mention Steven Edis’ music, the stunning flying dragon scene or Richard Roe’s super-slick tap-dance routine?)
Meanwhile Clive Rowe’s Widow Twankey, masquerading as Cher and serenading Abanazar with ABBA’s Fernando, will stay with me for a long, long time.
Runs until 6th January 2019Photo credit: Robert Workman