(Rapid Fire Review #3 in one day. Read below for thoughts on this year’s Perfect Pitch festival and Maria Friedman’s concert series at Trafalgar Studios.)
Growing up in the US, I was raised devoid of the great British tradition of Christmas panto, and only discovered the form last year as part of a group research project. Deciding that I should actually see the thing I was writing about, I went with my research partner to the Hackney Empire’s production of Dick Whittington as it was the only choice in the immediate London area which was open before our deadline.
As readers of last year’s review may remember, I was hooked. Hard. And, as it turned out, so were most of the mainstream critics who showered the production with raves. With such hype and fondness, the bar was set insanely - nay, impossibly - high for this year’s piece, Mother Goose. And, as you may have guessed, Mother Goose doesn’t quite reach Dick’s heights - which doesn’t mean that it’s still not a damn good show regardless.
Set in the town of Dalstonia, Hackneytopia, a battle between good and evil (the witches Charity and Vanity) is underway with the soul of poor yet optimistic Mother Goose on the line. While most of the standard panto tricks and cliches are in place (audience callbacks - scaled down in variety and quantity from last year, rhyming narrators, lots of weddings, bright medieval costumes, slapstick, etc.) Mother Goose is a subversive entry for two vivid differences.
First, there is no principal boy. Then again, there’s no PB in Cinderella or Snow White so take it as you will.
Second, this is the only pantomime with a singular Dame (the ever-wonderful Clive Rowe) who becomes the focal character *and* takes a heel turn: when gifted with the golden egg laying goose Priscilla, the Mother Goose character becomes self-centred and nasty in a radical departure from the loveable comedic characters that define most panto dames. I don’t actually have a problem with this - Susie McKenna’s script pulls off the transition well, and Rowe has both the acting chops and the charisma to make us want him to pull through the challenges at play.
I don’t have gripes with the ensemble of actors either - most of whom have returned from last year’s show including Kat B. as comedic role Billy Goose and Tameka Empson as good witch Charity. As for the rest of the cast, I’d like to name them but I didn’t get a programme and the Empire’s website fails to supply a list of cast members by role (nor are there photos yet to note from.)
So what are the issues? Well, the first act drags and feels particularly long. I had this complaint with last year’s show as well, but didn’t notice the problem on my second viewing. As the show is still in previews until Thursday, I suspect that there is still tightening to be done. I also caught a number of recycled jokes (are there lines which are supposed to be panto standards? More investigation is necessary) and recognised more licensed music this year (including a song from The Harder They Come) and fewer original tunes. While I have no proof to back me up, I suspect that Susie McKenna supplying not just the Hackney panto with a script and lyrics this year but also the New Wimbledon’s Cinderella may have played a part.
Most saddening, however? Clive Rowe isn’t allowed to throw sweets into the upper levels of the house anymore as *one* complaint filed by an angry patron (out of 45,000) last year caused a change in policy. It’s the destruction of simple, innocent acts like this which make the season a continual downer.
But me? I left feeling happy as can be. These are minor, nitpicker’s gripes here and the fact is that the Hackney Empire’s panto truly is on form for yet another year.
Where: Hackney Empire
When: Until 10 Jan., showtimes vary from M-Sa, two shows/day.
How Much: £9-19.50
Concessions: Vary, bookable in advance.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £19.50 for a top notch show.
RZ Other Notes: No, I’m not getting paid by the Empire to shill. I wish I was. I also wish they’d offer one or two child free performances for the childless adults who wish to come and not look like paedophiles.