The countdown began at five minutes when a panto voice boomed out from the PA system telling us to get to our seats for the start of the show. There was another at two minutes. You could see the kiddies already seated squirming with excitement while grown-ups checking tickets with the rows as they tried to locate their seats made their children anxious. One minute. Ten seconds. Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one! The band kicked in and the curtain rose to show the ensemble singing and dancing to the opening number. The Hackney Empire’s Christmas Panto had begun for another season, writes Michael Holland.
This year it is Jack and The Beanstalk so the expectation is of Jack selling the family’s cow for magic beans, a massive beanstalk growing up to the horrible Giant’s lair in the clouds and a happy ending filled with love and marriage. In between those fairy tale necessities is the fun and frolics that make or break a panto. Hackney did not disappoint.
We were introduced to the characters: best friends Jack and Jill and Simple Simon, then Fairy Fuchsia, who was going to save the world with her magic; Councillor Higginbottom and his Freddie Mercury fetish, then Funella Fleshcreep who we didn’t need to be told was the baddie – we just knew, and instinctively booed and hissed as soon as we saw her for the first time. It might have been the flash of lightning, the thunder and darkened lights that accompanied her entrance, but we definitely knew she was up to no good and let her know it.
And, of course, Clive Rowe as Dame Trot with a spectacular wardrobe. My favourite was the dress made from well-known shopping bags, but with a humorous twist.
Stand out scenes from the show was the Dance of the Cockroaches, and the Twelve Days of Christmas that was very nicely performed by Dame Trot, Simple Simon and Councillor Higginbottom getting their moves in perfect time as they ran about the stage seeking their next prop. Plus, poor Simon was splattered with pie every time they sang ‘Five Custard Pies’, which is guaranteed to raise a laugh.
There was the usual audience participation and, which I always find odd, more adults in the theatre than kiddies. But the most important thing for a Jack and The Beanstalk panto is to have an impressive giant and this giant impressed. He was huge. Plus, I don’t know how they got him to move around the stage. It was too big for a man to be inside the costume, and it was also too big for it to be operated like a puppet as the strings would have been far too obvious. It will remain a mystery to me.
Kat B as Simple Simon worked his socks off to create the most fun, and Clive Rowe once again showed what a master of his craft he is, but the whole cast put in a good shift to make this one of the most anticipated pantos around.
Hackney Empire 291 Mare Street, E8 1EJ until January 2nd. Times: Varied from 1.30pm, 6pm, 7pm. Admission: £10 – £42
Booking: 020 8985 2424 – www.hackneyempire.co.uk
Photos: Manuel Harlan