Dick Whittington and His Cat @ Hackney Empire, London

directed by
Susie McKenna
My parents never let me go to anything so vulgar as a pantomime. So it was that at the age of 28 I saw my first, and I am fairly certain I enjoyed it at least twice as much as any child in the audience.

Mercifully free of ninth-rate celebs tumbling from the pages of Heat in a state of undress, Sheila McKenna’s twelfth production for the Hackney Empire tells a rollicking tale with unrelenting joie de vivre. The old story of Dick Whittington’s rise to Mayor of London is glorified with a shipwreck and a vast gorilla, the wit falls carefully between innocence and gentle smut, and the songs were often worthy of a West End stage. The cockles of our hearts were warmed to boiling point by a plot utterly determined to think the best of mankind; it would be bad manners to spoil the ending, but I will say that there is a redemption that very nearly brought tears to my eyes.

The audience was mercilessly plagued to join in, so that what started as whispered ‘oh no it isn’ts’ ended with us all on our feet roaring foolishly to a song about the ‘Cool Cat Chat’ and shaking our tails. Appropriate to a story in which London’s streets are paved with gold – instead of the chewing gum and spat-out chicken bones so dear to us all – the whole production is love with the City: at one point the Dame’s hemline displays a London skyline, complete with the Gherkin. The sets were at times endearingly shaky, but also quite beautiful, and most of the children I saw were genuinely terrified by the smoke-and-bangs special effects, which is as it should be.

I was thrilled to see that principal boys really do slap their thighs: Hannah Jane Fox as Dick Whittington played her part with an earnestness that was much more gratifying to watch than irony, and her singing was excellent. As the faithful Cat Mike Denman says not a word, but conveys an extraordinary range of emotion by his movements, which were so acrobatic they drew gasps. Confusingly, Idle Jack is played by MTV presenter Kat, who has a supremely engaging stage presence. Tameka Empson as Fairy Bow Bells, descending on a wire singing snatches of Rihanna’s Umbrella song, was witty in the extreme, and as the villainous King Rat David Ashley gave a slinky performance with more than a touch of the Jack Sparrows about it.

As would only be expected, it was Clive Rowe as Sarah the Cook who not only stole the show, but then ran away to Rio and sold it for a fortune, singing all the while. This Olivier-winning performer not only sounds uncannily like Aretha Franklin, but has perfect comic timing, and his row of successively more preposterous outfits, which always heralded a glorious song, made the audience fairly bristle with expectation.

At more than two and a half hours it is not a brisk production, and once or twice I found my self gawping shamelessly at the internationally renowned actor-knight sitting in my row, but at the conclusion of the final song I felt my heart sink, as if Christmas had finished and was never coming back.

Susie McKenna did more to alleviate the pain of my festering wisdom tooth that night than half a bottle of paracetamol. If by some extraordinary twist of fate I ever found myself Minister for Health, I would make it mandatory for GPs faced with depressed patients to issue tickets to the Hackney Empire’s Christmas pantomimes. In fact, I shouldn’t be at all surprised to find it works fairly well as an anaesthetic in, say, minor amputations.

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