Since I’ve been in London (and after I discovered panto at the age of 40), Hackney Empire has been putting on my favorite show year after year. A lot of that is due to the talents of panto dame par excellence Clive Rowe, whose voice, personality, and chutzpah have had me giggling and guffawing. It’s clear that the writing and directing have had a lot to do with it, too, as the topical political jokes, clever satires of pop songs, and Hackney-centrism have also been a core part of my enjoyment – not to mention the family-friendly prices and the real feeling of community about the whole enterprise.
Well, a lot of these things were in place for this year’s “Dick Whittington” (the second time I’ve seen it there), but the magic was missing, and it wasn’t just because of Clive. There was a great, ultra-on moment as this year’s dame was parachuted onto the stage to be met by a James Bond lookalike, and several jokes about bankers, Boris, and the bad financial state the Empire is in, but where was the banter with the audience? Sure, we were asked to participate in no less than three callbacks, and of course we had a singalong (the “Cool Cat Chat” or something, it was recycled), but there was no audience member pulled on stage and almost no heckling of people in the front row.
More critically, where was the improv? Admittedly this performance was early days so people were probably settling in, and nothing seemed to go wrong at all, but it just seemed so canned (the jokes did, anyway) that I found myself let down. Yeah, there was rather a lot of innuendo with the cat running between the various female characters’ legs and then vibrating wildly (“Ooh, that tickles!” they exclaimed), but I would have preferred more wit. King Rat was sexy and a snazzy dancer when he finally got to cut loose, Mr Fitzwilliam showed fabulous potential to shine after a few more shows, and I loved the underwater scene, but that doesn’t change the fact that I took a nap during the first act and wasn’t bothered that I might have missed something. A servicable panto, to be sure, with this year’s obligatory “Gagnam Syle” parody, but not really worth the effort of trucking across London to see.
(This review is for the afternoon performance on December 1st, 2012.)