Clive Rowe, Anna Jane Casey, Tameka Empson, Kat B, Anthony Whittle, David Ashley, Josephine Melville, Claire-Marie Hall, Stephen Emery, Sharon D Clarke, Stuart King, Holly Smedley, Saori Oda, Danielle Young, Nyron Levy, Paul Saunders
Approaching the Hackney Empire for its annually triumphant Christmas panto, one must first battle through a few cheerfully vocal protestors, banners aloft. The fate of the beloved theatre is famously in the balance, and I reached the ticket desk lamenting that this would be the last pantomime Id enjoy under the constellation in its vaulted roof.
Nothing of the kind, as it turns out: certainly the Empires tightening its belt along with the rest of us, and over the next few months therell be fewer large-scale performances, and periods of darkness in the stalls. But I have it on the firmest authority that Christmas 2010 need not be cancelled, after all the pantomime will return.
And what a relief that will be to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the magic Susie McKenna and her team bring to the darkest months of the year. Living up to its reputation as Londons finest pantomime, this years Aladdin has it all: high camp, low comedy, a taut-legged principal boy in fishnet tights, and as fine a Dame as ever glued on a wig.
The tale itself veers from the familiar to the bizarre its as if a production meeting fuelled by espresso and M&Ms sketched out the narrative with the sole proviso: Will it be awesome? Then lets do it! Twice! Theres dancing pandas, and a bright pink Morris Minor driven by the Stig, followed by a Chinese dragon in full flight and a rendition of Single Ladies, respectfully choreographed and it all works. The humours perfectly pitched, with enough garishly-hued slapstick to wear out the children with laughter, and enough smart one-liners to keep the parents happy (When I was born, simpers Clive Rowe as Widow Twankee, I was so ugly the nurse slapped my mother).
Inevitably, each time Rowe comes out of the wings, all six foot of him lightly poised on buckled heels, he lights up the stage so completely its easy to forget there are other cast members somewhere in the shadows. Which is not to say hes a selfish performer, only that every gesture from a cocked eyebrow to a skittish embrace is impossible to ignore. Theres that voice, too, like Aretha on a bender in a whisky bar, so that every time he draws breath to belt out some snippet or other you lean forward in the hope hell just carry on all night.
David Ashley returns as the villain after last years turn as King Rat; hes demonically sexy and plainly relishes every line. Empire regulars Tameka Empson and Kat B take the roles of Empress of Chin and Genie of the Lamp respectively, with effortless comic timing. Anna Jane Casey makes not the slightest effort to be boyish, slapping her stockinged thigh with a knowing glance at the audience, and singing a gorgeously sentimental duet with Princess Clare-Marie Hall as heart-shaped fireworks explode silently around the auditorium. Matt Dempsey as Wishee-Washee, Aladdins dim-witted brother, sings wonderfully, but I was conscious all the way through of wishing he would relax, and relish the inevitable mistakes as chances to seduce a willing audience.
The original songs were no less memorable than the full-chorus renditions of Queen or Pixie Lott, and the orchestra played manfully on through clouds of dry-ice and the occasional insult flung offstage. The costumes designs excel year on year: at one point Widow Twanky shuffles across stage in a Ming vase, immense feet twinkling as she goes – You like that eh? Well, Ill do it again! The sets are outstanding, with Aladdins cave in particular so deep a lair, so dim-lit and punctured with glittering stalactites, it shouldve been narrated by David Attenborough. Altogether it was one of those rare evenings the end of which approaches far too fast: when the finale came, there was that same sinking feeling on realising there are no more Poirot books left to read, or that youve already eaten the last Hob-Nob. The magic for this year is behind me, alas; but those whose tickets are prudently booked have the sweetest of treats in store.