Writer/Director: Susie McKenna
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
There ain’t nothing like a dame, and, frankly, there’s one no quite like Clive Rowe, who lights up Christmas once again, this time as Widow Twanky. Under the direction of Susie McKenna the Hackney Empire pantomime is now in its 20thyear and is as much of a feature as Christmas as mince pies and the John Lewis advert.
A good deal of its long-lasting success is down to Rowe, who returns to play his 12thpantomime dame. Cheekily subversive and energetic he is delightful as the laundress Widow Twanky and the mother of Aladdin. Decked out in outrageous dresses – the teapot frock is quite a stunner – and full of charming and disarming innuendo, Rowe really does own the Hackney Empire stage. He’s an indomitable force.
However, as usual, the productions are a team effort, and Rowe is joined on stage by a sterling cast. EastEnders star and former Strictly competitor, Tameka Empson plays The Empress of Ha-Ka-Ney (gettit?), an Eastern Queen with a West Indian accent. She’s the perfect foil for Rowe, and together they create most of the laughs, especially when they break out into a Destiny’s Child medley. Someone should give the pair their own show.
The Empress is only a quasi-villain, but Tony Timberlake as Abanazar (have a banana?) fulfils the role of pantomime baddie. The audience at the Hackney Empire knows what to do, and Timberlake was greeted with boos even before he announced that he was intending to use Aladdin in his evil plans to take over the world. Despite the boos, Timberlake seems to be having the time of his life.
Refreshingly, Aladdin, the principal boy, is played as tradition demands, by a woman. Recently some theatres have veered away from this gender confusion, but here Gemma Sutton is a thigh-slapping Aladdin with a ponytail. Suitably cheesy and in very good voice, Sutton excels in this role especially in the scenes with her (his?) love interest, Princess Ling Mai, played with attitude by Julie Yammanee. The fact that her son is really a woman is performed with glee and, also sensitivity, by Widow Twanky; it’s tastefully done.
Perhaps it’s a little unfair to only sing the praises of some of the actors, as the whole cast is superb. We have two singing genies, two comedy policemen and Aladdin’s brother and his pet panda bear. Oh, and there’s a giant monkey with the powerhouse voice of Sharon D Clarke and some dancers who tap their way through the Queen classic Don’t Stop Me Now. And that’s not half of it.
This is how pantomimes should be done, and as the saying goes, if you only see one pantomime this Christmas, make sure it’s this one. Quirky, hilarious and, even at times, political, Aladdin is a riot. Everyone is having a ball on stage, and you’re very likely to have one too.
Runs until 6 January 2019 | Image: Robert Day