Although my kids are well versed in family theatre shows, I’m not sure how often they’ve been to proper full-length pantomimes. I know Reuben saw one in Winchester but Eva had to be taken out halfway through because the giant was “too dary”. We’ve been to the summer panto at Chickenshed and they were even in my work panto but a traditional panto like the one at Hackney Empire? I’m not sure.
It was time to right that wrong and take Eva to her first full-on “It’s behind you!” panto. Hackney Empire’s production is famous as one of London’s best so I thought it would be an excellent starting point. Plus it’s just down the road from church and we had a meeting all afternoon so the 5:30 show was nicely timed. It meant that we had to miss some sporting event or other but that was not an issue for either of us.
I was slightly concerned that she might find it as terrifying as the Winchester one – large productions can be something of a sensory overload and it was only last year that she had a bit of a breakdown at the Prince of Egypt. And it’s only now that I re-read my review of that show that I realise both productions had an actor in common – Clive Rowe.
Which is funny cause I was planning to mention my Clive Rowe connection in this review. I sang for a few years with Walthamstow Acoustic Massive and Clive was the patron and often guest singer. So we have shared a stage on quite a few occasions but luckily he didn’t haul me up on stage this time. Because Clive in this show is somewhat different to the mild-mannered man I saw at WAM rehearsals. Justin, however, was not so lucky.
Who’s Justin? You may well ask. We will get to that.
Anyway, I shouldn’t have been too concerned about Eva because she handled it all fine. The show starts with smoke and loud bangs and although she wasn’t mad keen on the smoke, she didn’t freak out too much about the bangs like she might have done a few years back. We are making progress. The initial plot was set out – a fairy and a demon queen have a wager over whether the demon queen can corrupt the pure soul of Mother Goose. I thought this felt familiar and spent a while trawling through romcoms of the 90s and Shakespeare plays before realising that this is essentially the plot of the Book of Job.
That sets up the story, all of which takes place in Hackneywood or the dark realm of Dalston. Having spent a fair amount of time in Dalston, I am not disagreeing on that. I did want to point out that there’s no “Dalston Underground” as it only has Overground stations but this is a world where, instead of jumping on the 38 to get between the two, they use a goose-powered hot air balloon. So a bit of poetic licence is allowed I think.
Mother Goose is goodly but poor and her sons (one hapless, one handsome) try to persuade her to be more hardnosed in business and stop giving away her beauty treatments for free. She’s in trouble with Squire Purchase, the local debt collector (played by Tony Marshall) and is only saved when her goose Priscilla starts producing golden eggs – a plot device driven in a somewhat convoluted way by the demon queen in an attempt to make Mother Goose fall in love with money and lose her soul. And – spoiler alert – it sorta works.
Now, I may point out Macguffins and plot holes but it’s a bit pointless as that’s not really what panto is all about. The more ridiculous a plot device, the better. And if an actor occasionally breaks character and giggles when a bit of improv goes in an unexpected direction – well, that’s all part of the fun.
And believe me when I say that this is panto in its purest form so improv, audience participation, “blue material” and heckling are all very much encouraged. Which brings me to Justin.
Justin was undoubtedly the breakout star of the show. I believe he’s a priest in the East London area (well, I know more than that but let’s not dox him too much). He was pulled out of the audience by Mother Goose in her search for a new husband and every time she called out “Cooee”, he had to stand up and cry “I love Mother Goose”. Bless Justin, he was game.
I also mentioned Priscilla the goose earlier, who was Eva’s absolute favourite. It’s lucky that heckling is encouraged because Eva was certainly vocal whenever there was a suggestion that anything bad might happen to this massive bird. Obviously, we all know that there will be a happy ending but Eva was emotionally involved as ever so the happy ending could not come soon enough.
Priests and geese aside, the rest of the cast were great too. Clive Rowe seemed very comfortable in the Dame role, camping it up with his mahoosive bazookas and arched eyebrows. Rebecca Parker was deliciously evil as the demon queen and possesses a powerful singing voice as well as rocking a sparkly costume that resembled Columbia from Rocky Horror. Gemma Wardle as Fairy Fame also had a surprisingly strong voice for such a wee pixie-like thing. I also really enjoyed Jill Purchase (Holly Mallett)’s drumming. But the whole cast was superbly upbeat and sang and danced in perfect synch, even though some of them were probably younger than Eva. There was a lot of glitter and shiny material so the dance routines were a visual feast, alongside the wonderfully detailed backdrops.
This is panto on a large scale and well-executed by a team who clearly know what they’re doing. Some of the references are very modern – the plot revolves around social media and there is a brief “Stranger Things” homage – but in some ways, it’s panto that’s remained unchanged for decades. It very much relies on groans and boos as much as laughs and cheers and the enthusiastic audience that we watched with did not disappoint. I mentioned “blue material” earlier because I remember doing local panto in my teens and seeing a newspaper clipping in the dressing room, with a list of do’s and don’ts for panto. One of them was “don’t use too much blue material”, which to my innocent brain, seemed to be a reference to cold-coloured scenery. The show today was aimed for at all ages so the material never did get too “blue” but again, my innocent brain might have just not understood all the gags. Safe to say, the script works at a number of levels.
There are also some lengthy diversions – one of which featured the return of Justin – but again, that’s the nature of panto. The total runtime is 2.5 hours, including an interval, so while it’s suitable for all ages it might be hard for some of the very little ones to sit still. Eva wasn’t sitting still but that’s because she was over-excited/dancing to the songs/rocking on tip-up seats because she “can’t get enough of theatre seats”. Luckily I was seated on the aisle so halfway through the first half I swapped with her and put her on the end so that it was only me that she was bothering with her wriggling.
There is also a tribute to Hackney Empire’s 120th anniversary which may seem shoehorned in but was very sweet and – briefly – featured a Julie Andrews impersonator. I can’t believe I was the only one who whooped for that.
We’ve seen shows of all types and sizes this Christmas and this is undoubtedly the most traditional Christmas panto we’ve seen. It’s brash and saucy but also clever, energetic and very entertaining. And if you live in Waltham Forest or Hackney, it’s super convenient too! Well, as long as the trains are running, which they weren’t tonight (but we got an Uber back so nothing worth blogging about). It’s definitely worth a trip to see if you’re looking for something to make you laugh and boo in equal measure. Also, a quick shout out to the Britannia Fish Bar a few doors down, where we got a very quick and cheap post-show supper. Delicious!
“Mother Goose” runs until Dec 31st at Hackney Empire. For tickets and more info, click here.
Disclaimer: I received free press tickets in exchange for a review but all opinions remain honest and my own.