Pantomime is a uniquely British institution. A panto that isn’t rude, vulgar, raucous, smutty and mildly offensive isn’t a panto, it’s anaesthetised cruise ship entertainment.
And so to Hackney Empire, or rather, the island of Ha-Ka-Ney whereon its Aladdin is set. Over the last two decades it has become an East End institution and Clive Rowe has been the resident dame for twelve of them. To mark its twentieth year its has not just pushed the boat out, but launched a bloody big liner.
Among its secret weapons are ‘thunderlungs’ Rowe, the voice of Sharon D Clarke as Gaia Goddess of Light and Kat B as a flying genie; plus musical director Mark Dickman’s quartet of musicians who punch well above their weight, a not-quite-real elephant and a flying dragon (the flying carpet was clamped in Mare Street) that would challenge War Horse for maximum puppetry impact.
Susie McKenna’s script refreshes the story without uprooting it and seasons it sparingly with topical jokes about Brexit (“We exited the Eastern Union, a stupid idea that made us all a bit poorer”) including a ‘Wanted’ poster for Jacob Peas Bogg – the alter ego of Tony Timberlake’s villain Abanaza. The pop at Hipsters who hijack authentic cuisine such as jerk chicken (“jerk spaghetti, jerk paracetamol”) brought screams of laughter. It is packed with incident and colour from tap-dancing pandas to a funny sequence involving Aladdin’s brother Dishi (Alim Jayda) being shrunk in the washing machine and then flattened by a mangle.
Edis’ songs are rousing and jolly and echo with familiarity without being blatant rip-offs and the use of extant songs such as Fernando and Can You Feel It? are given new mischievous lyrics. Even the audience participation seemed less onerous than usual; we shouted, waved our arms around in the Panda Song and were sprayed with water during a super-soaker gun battle. The two-dimensional sets and front cloths are beautifully designed and the costumes – particularly those for Rowe’s Twankey and Empson’s Empress (who lapses into Jamaican patois from time to time) – are drop dead fabulous.
Hackney Empire programme bills it as “London’s No 1 Pantomime”. I see no reason to dispute that claim. No reason at all.