Writer: Susie McKenna
Director: Susie McKenna
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
With its gorgeous interior, music hall echoes, and warm, welcoming sense of community, Hackney Empire remains one of the most beloved of London theatres. And the venue’s pantomimes, written and directed since 1998 by Creative Director Susie McKenna, are among the best regarded and most eagerly anticipated of the season.
Following a few years’ absence due to other commitments (including his brilliant turn as King Darius in the National Theatre’s wonderful The Light Princess in 2013), last year saw the venerable Clive Rowe make a triumphant return to the theatre, doing dame duty once again in McKenna’s production of Mother Goose. And it’s certainly good news that Rowe is back one more this year, this time playing Dame Daisy Trott in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Costumed to the max, in great voice on some surprising musical choices (including Aretha’s Think and a certain Nilsson classic that’s reworked here as Without Moo), and whipping out the gags with gusto (including a memorably dirty one about a selfie stick), Rowe distinguishes without dominating a production that delivers another lively mix of song, dance, madcap humour and loud-and-proud E8 localism.
Narrative coherence hasn’t always been a strength of Hackney’s pantos but, while the production is still a bit too long at 2 hours 45 minutes, the story-telling here does feel rather more stream-lined than usual. Complete with well-judged swipes at gentrification, a few reflections on global warming and screen cameos from Jon Snow and Robert Peston no less, McKenna gives a bit of cheeky political bite to the proceedings.
The classic tale has been transposed to “Hackneydale”, which is suffering a perpetual winter. Here Rowe’s Dame Daisy sends son Jack to sell the family’s cow Buttercup, in order to pay the rent to the evil collectors Stomach Bug and Nasty Bug, henchpersons to the Giant Blunderbore. To be sure, it’ll be up to Jack, along with the help of chums Off Her Trolley Molly and Clumsy Colin – plus the cosmic interventions of Mother Nature – to save the day.
McKenna has recruited many of her usual team for the production, including Lotte Collett, who supplies another gleefully gaudy design, while the arrangements and original songs from Steve Edis and MD Mark Dickman are characteristically strong. Whether shaking it to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” or celebrating the hero’s beanstalk climb, the cast works together wonderfully well throughout, with Debbie Kurup contributing a dashing Jack, and cherishable comic turns from Darren Hart as Colin and from Georgia Oldman as the science- and Brian Cox-loving Molly.
Kat B’s Jamaican-accented Snowman is a crowd-pleaser, and Jocelyn Jee Esien and Tony Timberlake are eminently hissable villains, while Julia Sutton’s kindly Mother Nature enters in Mrs. O fashion before blossoming with her magical powers and the revelation of a surprising romance. There’s even a cameo of sorts for regular Sharon D Clarke (who’s currently engaged in preparations for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National), who provides magnificent pre-recorded vocals for Davina the Diva Harp. And, sporting a Deep South American accent, Lori Barker is a sheer delight as Goldiniah the Golden Hen.
There’s a decided lack of lyricism to the approach overall. Still, McKenna’s production is another hugely enjoyable family treat from the Empire, a purist panto with enough cheek, edge and attitude to make a trip to Hackneydale well worth your while.
Runs until 3 Jan 2016 | Image: Robert Workman