Review: Aladdin (Hackney Empire)
Clive Rowe and Tameka Empson star in this year's 20th anniversary panto for Hackney Empire
It's been 20 years since dream panto team Susie McKenna and Steve Edis first started putting together east London's foremost festive stagey treat. To mark that milestone, stops have been pulled out in order to make this a special year. Clive Rowe – Hackney dame extraordinaire – returns to this stage this Christmas after four years away and EastEnders star Tameka Empson returns to her old stomping ground to make her first stage appearance in nine years and her first at Hackney after 2009's Aladdin.
I'm pleased to report that the show does deliver on the panto goods. It's a little lacking in Hackney's signature barbed political take downs, a little half-hearted on the audience interaction and I wished for a few more comedy set pieces from the shows out-and-out stars, Rowe and Empson. There's a lot of plot, and a lot of making sure the plot is understood, at the expense of some real, silly slapdash laughs. But that said this panto has huge heart, some excellent gags and hits many of the right notes to make its audiences hoot with laughter most of the way through.
Empson is glorious as the Empress of Ha-Ka-Ney in her Jamaican flag-coloured costume and her patois-infused riffs. There are a lot of jokes about jerk chicken – which set the entire audience off ("There's no such thing as Jerk Rice!") – and an impressive moment where she suddenly morphs into Tina Turner. One of the best bits of the night was when Empson and Rowe dance to "Independent Women" their big-busted costumes shaking like crazy.
This year's songs feel a cut above the norm, with Gemma Sutton's turn as Aladdin enabling them to soar, with much help also from Sharon D Clarke's voiceover appearance as Gaia Goddess of Light. Sutton is a thigh-slapping gender-swapped lead, and there's real chemistry between her and Julie Yammanee as Princess Ling-Mai. Of course, Olivier Award-winner Rowe also has a fantastic voice and the whole cast give Edis' songs an excellent chance to shine.
Hackney always remembers to hark back to panto's roots and regulars Tony Whittle as Sergeant Dumplin' and Michael Lin as Constable Ackee provide several great double act moments. There's classic vaudeville in their comedy timings and Lin is a brilliant tap dancer.
The biggest knowing laughs of the night comes from Kat B's Juno Genie of the Lamp when he references the Windrush scandal and when the Empress of Ha-Ka-Ney's mantra "I Don't Care" arrives on a coat reminiscent of one worn by the first lady. This panto is absolutely catered for its immediate – and very loyal audience – and when it does things right (which it frequently does), the whole auditorium erupts.
Hackney's Aladdin may not quite manage to top some of the theatre's past pantomime glories, but it does a top job of putting on a great show complete with guts, guffaws and greatness. It's very nice to see the old gang back together.