Review by Harry Bower
The joy of sitting in a pantomime audience is knowing exactly what you’re going to get; and Hackney’s infamous annual outing fully lives up to expectations. Aladdin is a story which fits surprisingly well into London today, and Will Brenton and Clive Rowe’s version gets fully Hackneyfied. Characters reference Ridley Road Market Bar, the Marshes, the eclectic mixed-use business premises around the borough (Window Twankey’s laundrette is also a café and cocktail bar), and of course the Arsenal/Tottenham football rivalry. There are nods to the political elite and rising rents, though a handful of references to the prime minister is where the social commentary ends; this production is well and truly family-first – and very traditional.
Expect all the usual panto-tropes, used to great effect. There are song mashups, a super soaker used against the audience, sweets lobbed into the distance for kids to catch, cast running through the isles, innuendo galore, and an abundance of audience interaction. That interaction ranges from excellent and well thought out (singalong numbers and the usual Twankey husband-finding), to shoe-horned and padded. Ascene in which an audience member is invited on-stage to participate in some clothes washing is bafflingly short, anddoesn’t deliver on any kind of interaction besides the person existing adjacent to the performers, which seemed a waste.Mostly though, audience members can expect to be shouting out and clapping along throughout.
The undoubted star and example for all dames across panto-land is Clive Rowe – completely committed to the bit, and deliciously cheeky. The knowing glint in his eye empowers the rest of the cast to ham it up even more. You can only guess how many times during the run his adlib skill will have them cracking up – the corpsing-counter reached two in my show. The rest of the cast seem to be having piles of fun too. Natasha Lewis as Abby-Na-Zaaar! demonstrates an impressive booming evil laugh and thrives on a very vocal audience booing and hissing, Ruth Lynch playing her opposite (Spirit of the Ring) is suitably bumbling and innocent but her vocals pack appropriate punch when called upon. In my show, Anna Greenwell made her debut as understudy Wishy and shone – a clear standout. The two leads, Aladdin (Fred Double) and Jazz (Isabella Mason) have the required angelic nature of two lovers engulfed by the stuff happening around them, mostly managing to keep up with the frenetic pace of ensemble numbers. In their solo pieces both start to show their individual talent and will shine in roles with more depth and with well-rounded arcs (ie not panto). A flamboyant camp disco-loving genie (Kat B) injects even more energy,appearing in flares and high heels and is brilliant fun.
The music selections are, to put it mildly, a bit odd. For such a traditional panto format I was surprised not to immediately recognise some of the jukebox tracks. The original numbersby Steven Edis sounded pleasant in the moment but were instantly forgotten by my, admittedly ageing, brain. The tracks I do recall were done well; 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton and an ensemble Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves get the audience grooving in their seat and smiling at the enthusiastic choreography by Myles Brown. A group of dancers from Vestry School of Dance and Performing Arts do themselves proud. Aside from some sound clarity challenges in the big ensemble pieces, the technical setup is superb. Lighting by David W Kidd is subtle but complements Celo Pettitt’s beautifully cartoonish and stylish sets which provide an explosion of colour. Some magical flying carpet action has kids in every part of the theatre open-mouthed in awe. Throw in the imaginative and quality crafted costumes (also by Pettitt) and you’ve got yourself one polished and swanky panto setup which is guaranteed to please the crowds day after day.
This year’s Hackney panto is exactly that; a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Sure, it’s a bit safe and the music selection not as mainstream as it could be, but it’s genuinely funny and delivers perfectly on expectations for a festive family trip to the theatre. Rowe takes an ‘ideas’ credit in the programme, and it’s not hard to see why for over ten years he has made Hackney Empire his home. The audience will lap up this production of Aladdin; and why shouldn’t they? It’s an awful lot of fun.
Aladdin plays at Hackney Empire until 31 December 2023. For more information and tickets visit https://www.hackneyempire.co.uk/events/aladdin
Photos by Steve Gregson