Clive Rowe as Widow Twankey and Tameka Empson as The Empress in Hackney Empire's Aladdin. Photo: Robert Workman
This year marks the extraordinary 20th anniversary between Susie McKenna and Steve Edis’ partnership in creating pantomimes for Hackney Empire. Written and directed by McKenna with original music from Edis, the festive production is one with its heart firmly in the East London community in which it serves.
This season’s offering of Aladdin sees regular dame, Clive Rowe, return for his 12th panto appearance as Widow Twankey in Hackney after a fleeting trip to New Wimbledon Theatre’s production of Jack and the Beanstalk last year. Hackney’s Cinderella in 2017 presented Rowe with no alternative as the larger-than-life performer – who prefers a solo outing – is adamant that the Ugly Sisters are a double act and therefore NOT officially dames.
Co-starring with Rowe is EastEnders favourite, Tameka Empson, who takes on the role of Empress of Ha-Ka-Ney presenting a hilarious and at times difficult-to-understand Rastafarian accent throughout – so much so that at one point Rowe brings on a ‘Ceefax subtitles on page 888’ sign during a particularly long rant. The pair's early act-two scene together is undoubtedly the highlight of the whole show.
Rowe and Empson command in their top-billing and certainly lead the cast throughout, but as a result are often missed when offstage as McKenna’s original script arguably contains possibly too much plotline – where a slightly simpler journey may avoid the show’s initial and lengthier dialogue-filled scenes. For the sake of the audience – and in particular children – it’s important characters are well-defined in terms of who provides the comedy and who needs to drive the plot. However, on press night I did feel that the entire cast was increasingly breaking down the fourth wall and demanding audience response (“Hello everyone!” … lift arm in Bruce Forsyth fashion asking for the audience to reply).
Quibble and full-on script aside, this show contains plenty of eye-popping moments, not least a huge full-sized dragon and a myriad of impressive flying effects. In the title role, Gemma Sutton flies in the face of modern big-bugdet panto casting where boys are now nearly always played by boys and girls are played by girls. As a fiesty boy, but without attempting to hide her feminine looks, Clive Rowe makes the most of the situation with a couple of funny comments by throwing in “My little gender-fluid boy!” and describing him as “Caucasian.”
Standout performances from Kat B as Juno, Genie of the Lamp, and Tony Whittle as Sergeant Dumplin’ add weight to the production, and Sharon D Clarke’s guest voicing of Gaia, Goddess of Light, brings some real class despite the 10-foot puppet-like character being a little slow and clumsy.
Summing up, this is a big-cast, big-crew production that pushes the Hackney Empire’s facilities to the limit and, as an independent production without mass funding, should be rightly applauded for the incredible feat and achievement... and long may it continue.
Aladdin runs at Hackney Empire until 6th January.
More at: https://hackneyempire.co.uk/whats-on/aladdin
Photo: Robert Workman