Though pantomime is the engine that keeps regional theatre running at this time of year, it is strangely missing-in-action in central London, where the West End entirely ignores it. Instead, it is left to suburban houses in Richmond, Wimbledon and Bromley to keep the commercial pantomime alive in the capital with a yearly parade of imported TV stars and other assorted celebrities like Linda Gray, Matthew Kelly and Wayne Sleep (at Richmond), Jerry Hall (at Wimbledon) and Marc Baylis and Sonia (at Bromley).
But it is Hackney Empire that keeps the true spirit and flame of panto alive in London, with a locally produced, authentically staged annual spectacle that invariably knocks the spots off any of the competition. That's because it is done with real heart, love and respect by a talented company of pantomime professionals.
Director/writer Susie McKenna and musical supervisor Steven Edis, collaborating on their 16th panto here together, blend the familiar and original expertly. We get all the scene favourites, from a ultra-violet lit skeleton dance and a fantastic kitchen scene involving endlessly smashed plates, to an audience sing-a-long and lots of interpolated pop favourites, including Frozen's Let It Go.
But there's also a real emphasis on solid storytelling and a touching portrait of families and communities being compromised by the arrival of evil in their midst. A fantastic cast includes a bunch of Hackney regulars including Clive Rowe (who has made the Dame his own in five previous entries here, including a prior Olivier nominated appearance as Mother Goose in 2008), Sharon D Clarke (in her 4th live appearance, as well as voicing others), Kat B and Matt Dempsey (both in their 7th runs here) and Tony Timberlake (3rd appearance).
Each have an effortless way of establishing a rapport with the audience built on their long association with them here. This is probably the most experienced and certainly the classiest pantomime cast in town.
"This isn’t the most polished Hackney pantomime I’ve seen. There’s not quite enough narrative drive, and jokes about the Scottish referendum, Usain Bolt and the Ice Bucket Challenge don’t feel fresh — yet aren’t sufficiently cheesy to be endearing."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Clive Rowe playing a panto dame is a total beast. Magnificent. The script creaks terribly, but Mr Rowe is even more infectious than ebola."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail