ALADDIN at the Hackney Empire
“Clive Rowe is truly the grand dame of panto dames”
Stuff Shakespeare, Pantomime is probably my favourite theatrical tradition. There are not many other settings where you can have babies, grandparents, and long-suffering assorted other relatives entertained for a couple of hours by good old British drag.
And Clive Rowe knows how to entertain. His stewardship at the Hackney Empire continues this year with another barnstorming performance as Mother Twanky in Aladdin. We are transported to the land of Hack-ne-lah, for a riot of fun, anti-consumerism and disco dancing. Trust me, it works!
Do I need to explain the plot? Probably not. The main additions to the traditional tale here are the sneering, evil billionaire Mildew Funk played in gloriously writhing camp fashion by George Heyworth (better known as Bourgeois in the celebrated cabaret duo Bourgeois and Maurice), who unfortunately also happens to be Jazz’s (Isabella Mason) father. He is determined to marry her off to a fellow rich man, when her heart has already been captured by the pure and kind Aladdin (Fred Double). The biggest baddie is Abby-na-zaaar! spelt properly with three ‘As’, one ‘R’, and an exclamation mark (Natasha Lewis). She is determined to become the most powerful wizard in the world, and also the best trombonist. I did not realise my panto needed brass on stage, but turns out it really does, especially accompanying a reworked Meghan Trainor song.
Aside from the magic lamp, there’s also a magic ring (the spirit of which is played by a charismatic and ditsy Ruth Lynch), who’s provenance got slightly lost in the exposition of the opening scenes, but nonetheless is charming.
“Cleo Pettitt on costumes ramps up the camp and comedy with each one: the sparkling dirty martini glass dress is the literal cherry on top”
Rounding out the cast is Rishi Manuel as Wishy, who does a great line in slapstick comedy, and pulls the audience through the obligatory participation songs. Kat B is the coolest genie I’ve ever seen, in a plunge neck disco outfit, and towering platforms.
Rowe also directs, and has assisted Will Brenton in writing the script. Once the heavy lifting of character introductions is out the way, Rowe warms the audience up with the help of a laundry list of gags – literally. Pun after pun after visual joke came tumbling out of Widow Twanky like the assorted items out of her brilliant bag lady dress, embossed with Groucci. The outfits get more and more extraordinary – Cleo Pettitt on costumes ramps up the camp and comedy with each one: the sparkling dirty martini glass dress is the literal cherry on top.
The big dance numbers also show off the talented ensemble and heighten the energy even more, grabbing the attention of even the chatty two year old sitting next to me. Myles Brown’s choreography, using professionals, (members of the Hackney Empire’s young Artist Development Programme, and the Vestry School of Dance and Performing Arts) is both polished, but also has an inclusive, community feel.
Though Widow Twanky might have moaned about the special effects budget, I was impressed by the sheer amount of pyrotechnics on show, and especially the magical carpet ride. Steve Edis’ original song here was also a welcome respite from memories of Peter Andre singing that version.
The short second act feels like it’s also had a gin at the interval, with the jokes getting more risqué, though firmly on the side of family friendly: the children around me were confused as to why I was laughing so hard at a gag about the Ultra Low Emissions Zone. I also think they might have been bypassed by the bisexual lighting and Aphrodite statue in a certain evil lair which foreshadowed a lovely romantic tryst and twist.
Hackney Empire once again presents yet another magnificent panto and Clive Rowe is truly the grand dame of panto dames. Long may his reign continue.
ALADDIN at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed on 30th November 2023
by Rosie Thomas
Photography by Steve Gregson
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