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120 years ago, just as legendary Dame of Drury Lane Dan Leno was taking to the stage in a role that would cement his place in pantomime history, Hackney Empire opened its doors for the first time. To celebrate both these anniversaries, this year the Empire turns to Mother Goose for its festive tale, putting the beloved Mare Street venue and acclaimed Dame Clive Rowe centre stage.
2022 marks Rowe’s fourth Mother Goose and 15th Hackney pantomime. He and his Dame are as much an institution as the Empire itself. Now also in the directing seat, Rowe drives the production as the happy-go-lucky Mother Goose who is tempted by wealth and changes her ways when lured by fame.
Writer Will Brenton has updated the narrative to the present day and sets his Mother Goose in a society obsessed with social media. The best pantomimes embrace the contemporary, and this Mother Goose most certainly acts as commentary for our time, with citizens of silverscreen-inspired Hackneywood on the constant quest for happiness via likes and follows based on their online presence.
In Brenton’s production, Mother Goose runs the Hackneywood beauty parlour, which permits slapstick slosh silliness with added audience participation as she creates her much sought-after secret recipe creams and lotions. Favouring people over profit, Mother Goose has hit hard times on account of giving away too many freebies, but it is somewhat conflicting that her whole line of business relies upon and contributes to the very problem she lectures about: that looks don’t matter and beauty is only skin deep.
True of heart and pure of soul, and the only Hackneywood citizen not on social media, Mother Goose becomes the subject of a wager between Fairy Fame and the Demon Queen: can she be corrupted? Relishing the chance to ruin her, the Demon Queen bestows upon Priscilla the Goose the power to lay golden eggs and soon Mother Goose’s transformation begins…
There are flashes of excellence and potential throughout the show, but it never really reaches the sum of its parts. Trimming some of the many songs and cutting a few of the frontcloth sequences would really help the show’s focus, balance and pace whilst affording other sections time to breathe. The Ghost Gag must be the swiftest in pantomime history and indeed the resolution of the Demon Queen’s plan to zombify Hackneywood feels incredibly rushed, as is Mother Goose’s moment of realisation and regret. Forgiveness seems to be granted all too swiftly, and in Brenton’s version, Mother Goose never actually loses Priscilla, aside from a millisecond moment when the golden goose is wrestled back by Jack and Jill before Jack gets kidnapped and needs saving himself.
Act two’s opener—a celebration of the Empire’s history featuring Marie Lloyd, Harry Houdini and Louis Armstrong—works well as a vehicle to depict Mother Goose’s transformation into self-obsessed, fame-hungry Diva, but it does seem a missed opportunity not to have used this framing positively as the show’s triumphant conclusion in a celebratory line of continuation that honours Clive Rowe in amongst his fellow stars of the stage. That aside, the use of mobile phone filters to show Mother Goose just what she could become after a dip in the Magic Pool is inspired and hammers home the duplicity and danger of lives played out online.
In addition to Rowe's barnstorming turn as the grand Dame, there are excellent performances from Rebecca Parker’s deliciously villainous Demon Queen, Gemma Wardle’s perky Fairy Fame, Kat B’s lovable Billy Goose and Tony Marshall’s eccentric Squire Purchase, but Ope Sowande and Holly Mallett’s romance as Jack Goose and Jill Purchase is never afforded any time to really take off. Ruth Lynch effortlessly breathes life into Priscilla the Goose, creating a believable character full of personality, and the Ensemble never falters, bringing vibrancy and dynamism to every scene and musical number.
A strong concept and performances make Mother Goose definitely worth a gander, but sadly its muddled execution means it isn't quite panto gold.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen