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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Hackney Empire   Winter 2011-2012

Generally acknowledged to be the London area's best Christmas Pantomime, the Hackney Empire's 2011 offering has a lot to delight both children and adults, and only a few disappointments.

(For the uninitiated: not a mime show, the Panto is an elaborate musical comedy built on a children's story, with a magpie score mixing new songs with current pop hits, guest stars from stage and TV, men playing the comic female roles, ritual audience participation, two men in a cow suit, hoary old gags and mild double-entendres for the adults, and a loose enough structure to make room for set pieces, specialty numbers, singalongs and local and topical in-jokes. Every theatre outside London has one like the ballet companies' Nutcrackers, they're money-makers and Hackney's is the biggest and most elaborate in central London.)

Susie McKenna's version of Cinderella has Cinders and the Prince meet cute long before the ball, and actually devotes so much time to introducing characters and comic digressions that the magical pumpkin doesn't appear until the first act finale.

This gives us time to get to know the characters, in particular a Cinderella far more spunky and modern and all the more attractive for that than in more traditional tellings. 

For several years West End star Clive Rowe has built his calendar around the Hackney Panto, but he's employed elsewhere this year, so producer/director/adaptor McKenna has spread her net widely to include stars from the theatre (Joanna Riding, Sophie-Louise Dann and the recorded voices of Clarke Peters and Sharon D Clarke), television (Wayne Perrey, Kat B), and music (Peter Straker) along with Panto veterans and newcomers. 

The production is particularly strong in music and dance, with Steven Edis's original music supplemented by pop hits ranging from 'Big Spender' to 'Bad' to 'Born This Way', and Frank Thompson's choreography fully up to West End standards.

And the audience involvement, an essential part of the Panto experience, is constant and enthusiastic, with not just Matt Dempsey's Buttons but just about everybody engaging effectively and entertainingly with us.

If the show has any weak point, it's in the comedy. The hoary old jokes ('He wanted a fairy tale romance and I can tell you it's Grimm') raise neither laughs nor groans, the men-in-drag Ugly Sisters aren't outlandish or funny enough, and the farce and visual comedy except for a clever haunted-house scene not speedy or punchy enough. 

It is almost part of tradition for the romantic leads to be wooden and faceless, but Sophia Ragavelas breaks with the pattern, giving us a Cinderella who is pretty, perky and full of personality.

Joanna Riding has fun as the wicked stepmother, and rightly stops the show with her take-no-prisoners 'Born This Way'. Sophie-Louise Dann is a warm Fairy Godmother and Tee Jay a personable Dandini. 

During the interval the little girl behind me was playing with the magic wand her mother had bought her outside the theatre, and pointed it at the stage just as the second act began. 'Look, mommy I made it start again!' A Panto is often a British child's first experience of live theatre (and for some adults the annual only experience), and this one offers almost all the magic and fun you could hope for.

Gerald Berkowitz

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