Review – Aladdin – Hackney Empire (2009)

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Panto panto panto! When Christmas rolls around, it’s my chance to experience the wonder of this traditional English fare, which turns me from a bitter theater grinch into a giggling six-year-old clutching a twinkling fairy wand in one hand and a fistful of sweets in the other. Okay, maybe I was actually clutching a G&T and the sweets were safely in my bag, but still, last night’s trip to the Hackney Empire made magic happen, just like it has every year I’ve made the trek to this most eastern of theatrical haunts.

My perspective was screwed on just a little more tightly by having gone to an Aladdin barely more than a week before, which led to the shocking discovery that, in spite of nearly every panto I’ve attended feeling like its script was found on the back of a box of cereal, in fact, many of the elements appear to be quite codified. I mean, really, who would ever think of Aladdin having a brother who was named Wishy Washy? I’ve read the fairy tale many times, and I’m positive there was no “Wishy Washy” in the Arabian Nights. I also don’t remember any scene in the Widow Twankey’s laundromat, in which a human being gets thrown into a washer/dryer and “shrinks” then gets run through a wringer and comes out as a paper doll, and yet both pantos had exactly these same elements. I suppose if I’d been going since I was six I’d know that there was always a Wishy Washy, a Twankey, silly policemen, and a very odd laundromat, but it almost seemed like an incredible coincidence given my lack of better cultural context.

So! New Wimbledon Theater and Hackney Empire Aladdin showdown! Brian Blessed and Pamela Anderson versus That Black Dame That’s In Every Hackney Panto and Some Random Woman As Aladdin! And the winner is …

OH MY GOD HACKNEY EMPIRE ROCKED THE HOUSE!

There are just SO many ways the Hackney Aladdin was SO good that it’s almost unfair to compare it to the Wimbledon show, like comparing mom’s home-made chocolate chip cookies to some stale biscuits from Asda. Rather than saying “this was better, that was better,” I will just talk about every little bit of magic that made Hackney’s Aladdin a night of theatrical magic for me, starting from the moment we entered Old Peking’s Ha-Ka-Nay with a lion dancer making its way through the crowd and stage hands waving butterfly and dragon kites around the edges of the balconies. The kids were screaming and laughing and the 70 year old man next to me was already smiling, and I was right there saying “LOOK BEHIND YOU!” at every opportunity, trying to learn the greeting for Wishy Washy (“Wishy Washy You’re So Chung”), and wondering how Twankey’s costumes would hold out.

But wait! Our Aladdin appeared, and it was none other than Anna-Jane Casey from the Menier’s Forbidden Broadway! We had a proper principal boy, in a skirt and with great legs and a fantastic singing voice! WOW! Suddenly her duets with the Chinese Princess became songs that were not just funny and clever but pleasant to listen to, and she got some good dancing in, too!

Of course, what I was waiting for was the fabulous dame Clive Rowe to take the stage as Widow Twankey, and as usual he was a ball of hysteria, not just tottering out in a different, comically camp costume every scene (bonus points for the willow pattern teapot!), but hamming it up so heavily – and, I suspecting, engaging in more than just a little ad-libbing – that at least two of his fellow actors lost it while they were doing a scene. A particularly memorable moment was when he was trading insults with the Empress of China (“You bottle of pepto-bismol!” “You chocolate orange!”) that at some point appeared to degenerate into actual, extremely funny, name calling. And then there was the moment he rolled off the couch where he’d been flirting with the ever so sexy Evil Magician Abenazzer (I don’t know his name but GOD he’s good looking), lost his wig, then (after some frantic moments) reappeared on the couch with his wig on backwards. I can’t say he carried on without losing a beat but the whole thing just added to the general high spirits. I can’t tell you what a treasure Rowe is: I will spend the rest of my life wanting to see dames of this quality in panto and I suspect in this day in age I will rarely see one of his quality again.Hackney Empire "Aladdin:" Off to Arabia - with the genie and ... on Twitpic

Well! I could go on and on about what a damned good evening this was, but I would just be rambling. Susie McKenna is a genius and there’s something wonderful about coming back to see so many of the same talented people coming back to this space to put on a show that somehow, even this far into the run and as the second show of that evening, was fresh and lively and delightful. As they say, if you’re only going to see one panto this Christmas … make sure you go to Hackney, because that’s where all of the magic is hiding again, the magic that turns me, Grouchy Theater McScrooge, into a giggling lump with tears running down her cheeks. Really, don’t miss it.

PS: There are tap dancing pandas. Need I say more?

(This review is for the 7 PM performance that took place on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2-009. The final performance is January 9th, 2010. See the Hackney Empire‘s website for more details, and please consider making a donation to help them stay open as after this year’s panto they will be dark for rather a while.)

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One Response to “Review – Aladdin – Hackney Empire (2009)”

  1. Review – Bells Are Ringing – Union Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] there’s Anna-Jean Casey, whom I remember from last year’s Hackney panto, and she’s winning and she’s our heroine and she’s quirky and fun and she talks […]

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