Pantomime Paradise! That must be the accolade for yet another triumphant Christmas production at the Hackney Empire, that grand old Music Hall built at the end of the Victorian Era. In those ornate surroundings, there is a suitably lavish feast in store for the eyes and ears, with colourful costumes, dazzling choreography, inventive sets, great sound effects, nice songs, and an excellent band to back them up.
What’s not to like? For the children, there is clowning and slapstick, with the traditional antiphony of “Oh yes, he is” answered by “Oh no, he isn’t!”, and the traditional warning from the audience, “Look behind you!”. There is a lovable cow, with the front and back end propelled by unseen ‘ghosts in the machine’. Sweets are tossed to the eager crowd, who are also sprayed at the behest of the aggrieved Bugs working for the Giant Blunderbore, in order to show us what it is like to be sprayed with insecticide (nothing more lethal than water is used on the audience).
For the adults, there are topical references, such as the Greek debt crisis, climate change and Boris Johnson. Indeed, Jon Snow and Robert Peston put in an appearance (as themselves). There is also some smut and innuendo, strictly for the adults (one hopes the children would not have got the joke about the selfie stick).
The origins of pantomime go back thousands of years to the world of Classical Antiquity, and many features, such as bawdiness and slapstick, survive in the modern form. Such modern concerns as gender transition are part and parcel of the pantomime tradition, with the Principal Boy being a girl and the Dame being a man, as they are in this production. The modern pantomime has only a small repertoire of stories from which it normally selects, and Jack and the Beanstalk has been performed at the Hackney Empire before, in 2005 and 2010. But the basic story can be adapted in all sorts of different ways, and new characters can be introduced. Here we have a fine array of characters, old and new.
Clive Rowe is outstanding as the Dame, being not only a great trouper but a great singer, as indeed are several other members of the cast. Well-known songs by the likes of Harry Nilsson and Aretha Franklin are belted out. Mother Nature features as a bag lady who could do with a bath, but she talks in rhyming couplets and makes sure that Jack and his friends save the planet. There is a Jamaican snowman (a nice oxymoron) who comes to life and moves like a gymnast, while the character known as Clumsy Colin is anything but, displaying such lithe agility that one wonders if he has any bones in his body. But I needn’t go on. The cast are uniformly good.
If I could pick just one scene that was really captivating, it must be the opening scene after the interval, when Jack has just climbed to the top of the beanstalk and is about to enter the Giant Blunderbore’s castle. It’s magical. This is a show you must see.