Clive Rowe’s pantomime dame is one of the wonders of the age and his sixth appearance at the Hackney Empire, in a really beautiful Aladdin directed by Susie McKenna, does not disappoint.
His Widow Twankey comes out of the Peking laundry in the Eastern province of Ha Ka Ney in a washing-line hat and glamorous housecoat and is soon schmoozing “Luke” from the front stalls on a “Slow Boat to China”. Rowe fills the theatre with his voice, charm and personality, but only prospers because of the rigour and discipline around him.
All the elements of the traditional story are new-minted but in the right place: there is stylish slapstick in the laundry (Matt Dempsey’s cute if slightly over-age Wishee Washee is put through the wringer and tumble-dried), a singing camel, a flying dragon to transport us to the deserts of Arabia (the flying carpet’s been clamped), a magic cave of baubles and gold-plated dancers and a great climax in the palace tower with the cast disguised as Egyptian sand-dancers fighting off a tribe mummified ninja warriors.
Steven Edis’ delightful new songs – visibly accompanied by a six-piece band led by Catherine Jayes in the pit – are blended in with appropriate pop numbers, best off all a company hoe-down to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” that is thematically appropriate in the love story between the genies of lamp and ring; these two are superbly played by an athletic, high-flying Kat B and a feisty Josephine Melville.
Aladdin himself is brightly, if a little stumpily, played by a thigh-slapping Anna-Jane Casey opposite the suitably anodyne princess of Claire-Marie Hall. The acting prizes go not only to the irrepressible Rowe, but also to Tameka Empson for her diminutive, hilarious Empress with social pretensions, David Ashley for his superbly timed, just nasty enough, Abanazer (“Bless you,” “Thank you”) and Stephen Emery and Anthony Whittle for their nicely contrasted comic policemen Ping and Pong.
Lotte Collett’s design is a treat, from the coloured front-cloths to the bamboo-framed interiors, the Chinese holiday procession, the chorus of fluffy pandas and the lovely wedding finale, a twinkling Christmas card of blues and whites and silver snowflakes. I can’t imagine a better traditional panto this year, so get down to Ha Ka Ney and raise a cheer for this glorious but sadly beleaguered theatre hoping for a Happier New Year.