Review: Cinderella (Hackney Empire)

Susie McKenna directs her 20th pantomime for the Hackney Empire

Funny things, power shifts. Last year, Tottenham overtook Arsenal in the Premiership for the first time in decades. The Rolling Stones supplanted the Beatles as the Sixties wore on. Tony Blair’s Labour trumped the Tories in May 1997. These are decisive cultural moments. You remember where you were when the scales tipped.

And so, to Pantoland, 2017. Hackney Empire has long been top dog in London’s dame game, but in recent years, the Lyric Hammersmith has nipped at its heels. Both are boisterous affairs that prefer local pride to celebrity gloss, and their rivalry has slowly simmered to a good-humoured gag. "You don’t get that at the Hackney Empire," Hammersmith will snark after a killer slop routine. These days, they may well have a point. Hammersmith kicks off this weekend, but those scales seem to have tipped.

This is the 20th year Susie McKenna’s taken the helm in Hackney and, frankly, it’s starting to show. That Cinderella is the soupiest story in panto’s pot doesn’t help, but there’s a lot lacking this year: topicality, bar a fly-by Donald Trump cameo; local colour, but for stray shout-outs and a horse called Clapton; and, well, Clive Rowe. Hackney’s home dame has defected – to Wimbledon. It takes his Ugly Sister successors, Kat B’s Victiqua and Tony Whittle’s Queeniqua, a good hour to sneak in with a double entendre.

What you do get, however, is a good old-fashioned song-and-dance show with Richard Roe’s choreography doing its best to razzle-dazzle as Steven Edis' original songs pass blandly by. Cinders itself is told with classical charm, set in a vaguely Edwardian Hackney-on-Leigh, but since McKenna steers clear of subverting the story, it looks a little bit off when Aisha Jawando’s bright-eyed Cinderella ditches Darren Hart’s puppyish Buttons for a prince as public school as Chris Jenkins’ characterless Charming.

There’s a cracking transformation routine under the Empire’s trademark UV lights, as Cinderella’s dress dances in the dark, but beyond the odd nod to a generational divide, whereby oldies trill oldies as the young drop Stormzy and Drake, there’s little to bring it all up-to-the-minute. It’s about as 2017 as 2015. And when it’s not stuffed with gags, Cinderella tends to go slack. This one’s so baggy it could have a 10p tax.

Thankfully, to mark her 20 years at the wheel, McKenna herself has stepped onto the stage. Her villainous mother-in-law Countess Anastasia is the shot in the arm her show badly needs. A cackling classless frump with a fondness for fake fur, she drops her airs-and-graces for Cilla Black Scouse and blasts the roof off with a medley that mashes Little Mix up with Les Mis. More of that and Hammersmith might have competition once more.

Cinderella runs at the Hackney Empire until 31 December.

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