“He wanted a fairytale romance – it ended up Grimm”
Last year was the first time that I re-engaged with the world of pantomime since being a kid and despite having heard many good things about the Hackney Empire panto over the past few years, in particular Clive Rowe’s various dames, I didn’t get there. And sod’s law dictates that as I booked for Cinderella – this year’s effort – Mr Rowe engaged himself in a production of The Ladykillers which is now previewing at the Gielgud. But you don’t miss what you never had and in any case, my history with pantomimes at the Hackney Empire actually stretches back to 19?? and one of my first genuine memories of being in a theatre with Peter Duncan playing Aladdin and clambering all over me and my cousins as he climbed through the audience as part of the show. So it was actually a fascinating opportunity to revisit a little piece of personal history as well as marking the beginning of my festive theatregoing season.
Writer/director Susie McKenna has refreshed the familiar tale of Cinderella to contemporise it for modern audiences, yet still maintaining much of the traditional feel of a pantomime that really is suitable for all ages. So we have all the familiar characters: a pair of hilarious pantomime dames as the Ugly Sisters – Tony Whittle and Kat B as Queeniqua and Victiqua respectively, a fairy-godmother who speaks in rhyme – Sophie Louise Dann in charming form and the children’s TV presenter affability of Matt Dempsey’s Buttons with his horse Clapton (complete with special song). The writing has lots of nice little local references that make it a nicely Hackney-located show and up-to-date references but not obtrusively so, there’s also the sweet-throwing out, audience shout-outs and a little onstage participation for one ‘lucky’ fellow that we’ve come to expect.
But there’s also some star quality at work here. Lotte Collett’s design is really rather sumptuous with lots of lovely touches (though making eye contact with the flying horse will give me nightmares for weeks on end) and an inventive approach which includes some Japanese black light show work and great lighting from David Kidd. And the casting has really come up trumps in employing Joanna Riding as the Wicked Stepmother and Peter Straker as Baron Hardup, allowing for some sensational singing performances – a mashup of ‘Born This Way’ and ‘Let Me Entertain You’ by Riding being a particular stroke of genius. And long term friends of the theatre, Sharon D Clarke and Clarke Peters voice a pair of loved-up mice to great effect.
Sophia Ragavelas makes an appealing Cinders, trilling her way through songs like Jessie J’s ‘Price Tag’; Dandini is a nicely charismatic turn from Tee Jaye and Wayne Perry makes a handsome and strong-voiced Prince Charming – my only note would be he was a little bland for my liking, I know Prince Charming isn’t the most interesting of characters, but he is so earnest here without any sense of humour that even his balladeering through ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ threatens to edge into beigeness. But as a family show, the portrayal fits in just fine and as the Bollywood routine to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ shows, he does have a little sparkle in him too. And altogether the show adds up to close to the ideal pantomime, one that more or less hits the bases for all ages with some good honest fun: you will have a guaranteed top banana time 😉