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Jack and the Beanstalk (Hackney Empire)

Clive Rowe returns to Hackney Empire as a 'truly excellent dame' in Susie McKenna's panto

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In the battle of the London pantomimes, it's hard to stand out. A raft of new traditions has been added to the obligatory custard pie fights and "he's behind yous!",and everyone's towing the line. A panto without the year's biggest pop songs? Oh no you don't! But there's still one thing that can single out a show as just that little bit special: a truly excellent dame. And Clive Rowe, who returns to Hackney Empire this year to play Dame Daisy Trott, is just that.

The only Dame to be nominated for an Olivier, his performance is like a hit of intravenous joy. Even the young man he selects to perform an innuendo-packed cow milking routine can't help but return Rowe's merciless teasing with a huge daft grin. One twitch of Rowe's eyebrow and the crowd is in stitches, a few notes of his exceptional singing voice and goosebumps prickle. Not to mention the genuine pathos he evokes when Daisy and Jack are forced to part with their beloved cow (the woman next to me was reduced to tears). His outfits, of course are also plentiful and preposterous: look out for the nightdress and bloomers combo, complete with hot water bottle hip flask

But while Rowe is irrefutably the star, he isn't the only thing to recommend this full-hearted, energy bolt of a show. The cast are terrific singers and Steven Edis's score, featuring original songs and pop hits from the Sixties to today had us jigging in our seats – a mash-up of Taylor Swift's Shake it Off and Sister Sledge's We are Family went down particularly well. Meanwhile, Carl Parris's choreography is fun (if not dazzling) and his ensemble is full of individuality and oomph.

The principals are, for the most part, similarly winning, particularly Kat B as a Jamaican snowman with faultless comic timing and some killer dance moves. Only Debbie Kurup is a little disappointing as Jack, taking lay-it-on-thick acting beyond panto-admissable levels. Her vocal range, however, is blistering.

As for the more established traditions, all are present and correct. There is some great contemporary fun-poking, with victims ranging from Boris Johnson to Apple to Sepp Blatter, and the custard pie scene is suitably messy.

Susie McKenna's direction is once again spot on (this is her seventeenth Hackney pantomime), and her script is consistently funny, but I could have done without quite so many bonus plot points, which make the first half hard to follow, or the eco-message, which is explained too late and too patchily to really hit home. After all, with a Dame as good as Clive Rowe, you can afford to keep things simple. But then again, when you've got Rowe in your ranks, does anything else even matter?

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Hackney Empire until 3 January.

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