When the history books of the future look back on the Hackney Empire, names that have become synonymous with the venue from Charlie Chaplin to Marie Lloyd will be joined by the doyenne of pantomime Susie McKenna. In her nineteenth pantomime on Mare Street, writer, director and this year performer McKenna delivers a production fresh for the 21st century and reminds us of the genre's power to celebrate diversity and scrutinise the politics of the day.
Known for its diverse casts, this year's Cinderella is also an aural feast, with the rich tones of Italy and America in amongst those of multicultural Britain. With Brexit looming, Stephane Anelli's Italian Dandini constantly fears deportation and McKenna cleverly uses the production to reflect upon aspects of the British character. As the Ugly Sisters over-enunciate and gesticulate when conversing with the Prince's equerry, McKenna highlights how such behaviour makes them appear alien and unfathomable, when they accuse the same of Dandini, and in doing so exposes their prejudice and arrogant superiority.
Playful use of language and communication can also be seen in Peter Straker's velvet-voiced Baron, who constantly attempts to increase his status via French malapropisms. And whilst Dandini attempts to sort the 'wicked' from the 'peng', Darren Hart's Buttons speaks directly to the younger members of the audience with patter heard in the Empire’s local schools and streets.
Having risen the ranks of the Hackney Panto, Hart's Buttons embraces the audience and elicits laughter from his enthusiastic grin, child-like naïvety and constant undulation as if a friendly rhumba-dancing anaconda at a limbo competition. This excellent physicality highlights the role movement plays in comedy, and the need for contrast in a genre which is so often interpreted as constantly anarchic.
Heart lies at the very centre of this production and in amongst the madness of the Ball, perhaps the most tender moment comes when the Baron pleads forgiveness for not asserting his authority and helping Cinderella. His rendition of Rag‘n’Bone Man’s "Human" reminds us of pantomime’s strong moral with the show's resolution citing jealousy as the Ugly Sisters' reason for their behaviour.
Kat B and Tony Whittle's clown-like comedic Sisters balance bullying with belly-laughs perfectly, from ticket tearing to hit of the year Despacito dance-off, but what makes their power greater is their threat to harm Cinderella's father should she step out of line. McKenna permits Cinderella to initially fight back, encouraging us all to stand up for what we believe in, whilst also reminding us of the difficulties incurred when protecting loved ones and the sacrifices selflessness can bring.
From a rarely-seen Haunted Bedroom sequence to the even rarer beast of a pantomime horse, Hackney's pantomime respects the genre's history and reflects the present day. Ensuring Clapton the Horse appears alive and believable, the unaccredited performers never falter to maintain character in one of the most magical skin performances seen in recent times and one integral to the story.
The best pantomimes honour and tweak tradition and this is nowhere more evident than in the famous firewood fetching scene. Rather than merely offering Krysten Cummings’s soulful Fairy Godmother her kindling, it is the fact that Cinderella assists the Immortal in fixing her motorbike that wins her the trip to the ball, a comment on teamwork and the end to passive Principal Girls who long only to be a Princess.
Political references are peppered throughout proceedings, with a surprise appearance from Trump at the Royal Ball receiving the biggest boos of the night. McKenna’s commanding Countess Anastia proudly states she voted leave, with other characters commenting that her daughters were better suited to the names Theresa and May.
Whilst the romance between Chris Jenkins’s likeable Prince Charming and Aisha Jawando’s assertive Cinderella might take the back seat, one doesn’t miss it greatly and the Empire’s panto merely reflects an increasing trend for quest over romance narratives, with act two’s conclusion featuring kidnapping and a chase sequence to shake things up a little.
Mark Dickman’s band ensures Hackney retains its crown for Pantoland’s best sound with Lotte Collett’s costumes adding that final layer of expertise, creativity and character.
With 2018 marking McKenna's 20th pantomime at the venue, all eyes next year will be on Hackney to see how two decades of dames, damsels and dancing are celebrated in style.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen