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Pantomime in East London – Aladdin:
Love it or hate it, pantomime season is well and truly upon us….
Panto is a quintessentially British institution, but it was in fact developed from the Italian street theatre of the commedia dell’arte in the 16th Century. Here in Britain, we have made it a very Christmassy tradition – I remember only too well going dressed up in my best frock for our annual seasonal family outing with my grandmother to Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre to see their Christmas show.
Pantomime hasn’t changed an awful lot; usually adapted from a fairy tale it includes stock characters and uses lots of physicality, plenty of jokes and some song and dance. It remains unapologetically brash, loud, sometimes smutty, very silly and full of innuendo. Generally, I would put myself in the ‘hate’ category, after seeing too many thoroughly mediocre productions over the years. However, after a recent night out in London’s East End at the glorious Hackney Empire (whose pantomime is now in its 20th year – they really know how to do ‘panto’ in style) I could well be changing my tune.
Aladdin is written and directed by the well-seasoned queen of pantomime Susie Mckenna, who has assembled the dream team. Oliver Award-winning Clive Rowe, as Dame Widow Twankey, has a ubiquitous presence and a rollicking bluesy voice which completely brings the house down (this is his 12th season!). Rowe wears some splendid, no-holds-barred costumes, including a giant teapot – and his propensity for charm can’t help but bring a smile to every face in the auditorium. He is superbly well-matched with the fabulous Tameka Empson – of EastEnders and ‘Strictly’ fame – who plays The Empress of Ha-Ka-Ney, who is trying to marry off her feisty daughter, Princess Ling-Mai (Julie Yammanee), to a wealthy suitor. Empson has bucket loads of wit and personality and whipped up the audience no end. The dream team are backed up by a strong cast who build the good vibrations.
This retelling of the age-old Aladdin fable has an undoubtedly creaky plot, with a slightly spooky giant monkey puppet in the form of Gaia, Goddess of Light taking the role of narrator – and singing beautifully, courtesy of Sharon D. Clarke. But that aside, this family-friendly show ticks all the rights boxes, with some amusing audience participation; it’s fully abreast of pop culture and social media, and plenty of current jokes plus a few political ones thrown in for good measure, including topical references to Windrush and Brexit. Here it’s the decision to leave the ‘Eastern Union’ which has bankrupted the Far East End province, and a ‘Wanted’ poster for Jacob Peas Bogg, AKA our villain Abanaza (played by Tony Timberlake).
In line with panto tradition, Aladdin is gender-swapped, played by a suitably upbeat, ponytailed Gemma Sutton. Alim Jayda makes a spritely Dishi (Aladdin’s brother), Kat B makes for a dramatic, rather cool flying genie, and Natasha Lewis a promising Genie of the Ring.
Amongst the larger-than-life-sized puppets, particularly impressive is the giant flying dragon, and some talented stage school kids also grace the stage as a troupe of toe-tapping pandas.
Lotte Collett’s sets are a kaleidoscope of colour and wonderful sweeping backdrops. Richard Roe’s choreography is fun and vibrant, whilst musical director Mark Dickman’s fabulous band and Steven Edis’s music keep the non-stop party feel going with great sing-alongs including Queen’s classic ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and Abba’s ‘Fernando’.
This is one happy fracas, a bawdy riot, a full-on Christmas party and panto at its best, which has set me up for a very jolly Christmas – and all thanks to the Hackney Empire!
Aladdin runs until 6th January 2019
291 Mare Street