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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Hackney Empire


  Ph: Robert Workman

The English pantomime is – as the Greek origins of the name suggest – a beast that tries to embrace everything. It’s a shamelessly motley assembly of bastardized fairy tale, regurgitated popular culture and satirical political references, all served up with a lively garnish of cross-dressing. As one might suspect, specimens of this beast range from the hollow-eyed Z-list-celebrity-infested variety to the so-exuberantly-good-it-deserves-its-own pedigree. The Hackney Empire pantomime perches at the top of the scale, an inspired mix of on-the-button choreography, puns to make your eyes rotate 360 degrees, impressive demonstrations of lung power and, of course, the pantomime dame to out-dame them all, Clive Rowe.
The multi-talented Rowe, who was nominated for an Olivier award last time he appeared as Mother Goose in 2008, has been absent from Hackney Empire in recent years, and his presence has been missed. From the moment he appears on the stage – resplendent with a goose-embroidered dress, red and white stripy tights, a saucily cocked hat, and shiny dimpled cheeks – the already oomph-filled production goes up another oomph. Soon jokes about the Tory coalition’s controversial bedroom tax are flying across the stage. "I’m so poor I can’t even pay attention," Mother Goose protests. When a large goose that lays golden eggs appears at her house, it sparks a frenzy as the characters try to guess its name. Godzilla? Polyfilla? Arthur Miller? ("That’s for Guardian readers," winks Rowe). The real answer (Priscilla) is of little point here, rather like the plot. The life force of the production is in its deviations, asides and innuendoes.
Hackney is one of London’s most ethnically mixed boroughs. The last census numbered its black population at 56,858. That mix is strongly reflected here. The script is written by the white Susie McKenna (who also does a spirited turn as the evil witch Vanity), but the production as a whole owes much to black music culture. It opens with Sharon D Clarke suspended above the stage as the good fairy Charity, one of the denizens of Hackneytopia. Good characters can all too often come across as insipid in pantomimes these days, but the moment Clarke opens her mouth and delivers a rip-roaring version of "I’m Every Woman," all doubts are dispelled.
As with most pantos, there’s a Manichean division between good and evil here. The never less than funky Kat B – another Hackney stalwart – plays Mother Goose’s son, Billy, as a force for good, in love with Princess Jill. Darren Hart appears as her nephew Frightening Freddie, in cahoots with Tony Timberlake’s Baron Barmy. "We’re as united as Europe on this," they quip, to steal Priscilla and turf the increasingly money-mad Mother Goose out of her house. As the plot becomes ever more ludicrous, so do the outfits. At one point Rowe appears as a female version of Goldfinger, complete with sequins and fluffy white dog. Will she be redeemed and does everyone live happily after? Of course – but that will ultimately make less of an impact on you than the sight of Rowe dressed as a Doris Day-style disco-diva and singing "Happy" with a flare that for a brief, insane, moment makes nothing else in the world seem to matter.


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