Clive Rowe, Sharon D Clarke, Tameka Empson, Kat B, Anthony Whittle, Matt Dempsey, Susie McKenna, Alix Ross, Abigail Rosser, Carl Parris.
Susie McKenna’s annual pantomime for the Hackney Empire is a characteristically joyous event.
Reuniting dame extraordinaire Clive Rowe, quicksilver entertainer Kat B and Tameka Empson of BBC comedy trio 3 Non-Blondes, this year’s production boasts a particular diamond in the form of Sharon D Clarke, and looks set to triumph once more as London’s best-loved Christmas show.
Taking a perhaps less well-known tale than last year’s Dick Whittington, this production casts Rowe as a bawdy, cheerfully down-at-heel storyteller living in Hackneytopia with various fairytale companions, including a vast and rather spongy-looking gingerbread man that reduced me to hysterics whenever he tottered across the stage.
Threatened with evication, her livelihood is saved by the gift of long-lashed avian friend Princess Priscilla, who lays a series of golden eggs of increasing size, value and (I imagine) painfulness. Alas, Mother Goose’s values are disastrously altered, and she begins to long for wealth and beauty.
The requisite elements are present and correct: her postman son (Kat B) is cheerful with his lot, though the girl he loves is unhappily betrothed to a young Prince who has an enchanting leg for a pair of white breeches and not an ounce of charm or sense. Fighting for the soul of Mother Goose, and with it the soul of Hackneytopia, are a pair of sisters – Vanity, played with a wonderfully spiteful nose by Susie McKenna, and Sharon D Clarke as Charity.
The tale is perhaps a fraction heavy-handed with the morals, but since the world stands at the edge of monetary apocalypse, teaching youngsters to be cheerfully content with their lot – whether financial or physical – is by no means a bad thing.
If the story at times lacked the strong narrative drive of previous productions, there is more than enough here to compensate. The music is a mixture of hits that have graced the XFM playlists over the past year and new songs from Stephen Edis, and will entice the most flu-weary misanthrope to their feet. Carl Parris as Baron Bonkers, and Tameka Empson as his ne’er-do-well Mare St hoodie of a niece, have cracking comic timing between them, and there are some slapstick set-pieces that I’ll confess bored me a little but were evidently aimed at the hooting children present, and successfully so.
It’s usually the case that Rowe doesn’t so much steal the show as highjack it and drive it to the nearest party – and he almost manages the same here. Blessed with as much with comic timing as with a voice, he’s like the gleeful offspring of Aretha Franklin and Tommy Cooper and held the audience in the palm of a massive hand. This year, however, there was serious competition from Sharon D Clarke, who is apparently incapable of a single movement or gesture not rich with grace and beauty. Her voice, whether speaking or singing, is enough to quell a storm at sea. Each time she sang the audience noticeably strained a little closer, and sighed with disappointment when she finished. The spectacle of Clarke and Rowe singing a triumphant duet praising the quality of hope should be provided on presciption to melancholics: it was pure happiness.
This show marks the tenth anniversary pantomime at the Empire – and on this evidence, there’ll be another triumphant decade.