Review by Daz Gale
Panto season has well and truly arrived with cries of “He’s behind you” being heard up and down the country. It felt fitting for my first panto of the month, I’d head to one of the most iconic ones of them all – the legendary annual panto at Hackney Empire. The venue have been celebrating their 120th anniversary all year so it feels fitting that their celebrations have concluded with Mother Goose – a pantomime that also originated 120 years ago. The question is – was this eggcellent or just a rotten egg?
If you have been to a panto before, you’ll know that the plot is usually paper-thin or sometimes non existent. Instead, there are a series of sketches tied together with a loose narrative. Mother Goose does try to form a coherent story, perhaps more than some other pantos. This story is set in the glamorous world of Hackneywood where dreams are made into films. However some dreams can become nightmares thanks to threats of debt and the threat of Mother Goose losing who she really is.
Clive Rowe has become synonymous with Hackney Empires annual panto, regularly putting on his best frock to doll up as their Panto Dame, and even being nominated for an Olivier award for it. Here, he reprises his role as the titular Mother Goose, and it very quickly becomes apparent why his appearances in the Hackney Empire panto have become the stuff of legend. A formidable performer in his own right, Clive is clearly having the time of his life in the role, effortlessly balancing the tight script with a lot of improvisation and ad-libs, much to the amusement of his co-stars. As well as showcasing his sensational singing voice and oozing charisma, he gives the Mother of all performances and is undoubtedly the star of the show.
The rest of the cast ensure the calibre of talent is maintained no matter who is on the stage, with Mother Gooses (Geese?) sons Billy and Jack brilliantly played by Kat B and Ope Sowande. Tony Marshall gets a scene-stealing turn as Squire Purchase with Holly Mallett delighting as his daughter Jill. Gemma Wardle flits around the stage like the very best as Fairy Fame while Rebecca Parker laps up being the villain of the piece as Demon Queen.
The main cast is completed by Ruth Lynch giving a honking great performance as Priscilla the Goose, while a talented ensemble, members of Hackney Empire’s ADP Dancers and the Vestry School of Dance & Performing Arts fill the stage with a mix of talented adults and children alike.
Clive Rowe also directs the production, attempting to keep some semblance of order, even when the action threatens to descend into chaos. The set by Imagine Theatre sparkles and immediately screams “PANTO” while Clives increasingly more outlandish outfits, designed by Cleo Pettitt, never fail to put a smile on your face and are among the greatest and most intricate I have seen in a panto – full of cheeky little details such as where the stage door is on his curtain call outfit.
Will Brentons writing is full of some fantastic one-liners and carries a deeper meaning than you might expect at a panto. Having a section celebrating 120 years of Hackney Empire was an inspired touch, although this did feel a bit too shoehorned in and at odds with the rest of the production. I for one found it very interesting but would have perhaps liked to have had this section dotted around throughout rather than in one scene in the second act that felt a little too out of place. Some brilliant topical and political references are included throughout which may fly over the children’s heads but were very much appreciated for the adults in the audience.
Pantos are known for including the most random songs that barely relate to the story at all and Mother Goose is no exception. With Dua Lipa’s ‘Levitating’, ‘Rich Girl’, ‘Disco Inferno’ and an extra slow ‘What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted’ among those present. Some retain their original lyrics, some are rewritten with a particularly ‘Let It Go’ inspired number towards the shows climax among the highlights while a rousing ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ was an undoubted standout.
Panto wouldn’t be panto without a bit of audience participation and Mother Goose does this better than most, particularly when Clive Rowe picked a victim from the front row to stroke, and essentially become one of the cast for the remainder of the show. It was the improvisation that received the biggest laughs of the night with Clive Rowe and Kat B particularly quick in their banter to each other.
If Hackney Empire have a strong reputation for their annual pantos, Mother Goose will only go to further that. A perfectly balanced mix of polished professionalism and utter chaos, this showcased the very best in panto. The eggsemplary cast led by Clive Rowe create a charming and joyful performance which will ensure everybody leaves with a smile as big as if you had just found a giant golden egg. A fitting tribute to the art of panto and Hackney Empire in itself, Mother Goose could be the mother of all pantos.
Mother Goose plays at Hackney Empire until 31st December. Tickets available from www.hackneyempire.co.uk.
Photos by Manuel Harlan