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Mother Goose at the Hackney Empire – review

Clive Rowe returns to lead another festive production in Hackney

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Clive Rowe and company
© Manuel Harlan

Mother Goose is the most obviously moralistic panto story, and here gets transformed into a pertinent fable about the perils of social media fame. The central attraction once again is Clive Rowe, who directs and stars in the title role, adding to his illustrious list of Hackney dames.

Set in ‘Hackneywood', Will Brenton's script sees our heroine running a beauty parlour for aspirational fame-seekers, refusing to accept money for her troubles. Which is all very admirable, until landlord Squire Purchase (Tony Marshall) demands his rent amid a spiralling cost of living crisis.

Purchase's good-hearted daughter Jill (Holly Mallett) happens to have the hots for the dashing Jack Goose (Ope Sowande), whose brother Billy (Kat B) is an influencer who doesn't know what he's meant to be influencing. Meanwhile, the Demon Queen (Rebecca Parker) has been goaded by Fairy Fame (Gemma Wardle) into tempting Mother Goose with the promise of eternal beauty and social media stardom in return for her golden egg-laying pet. Got it?

As ever at Hackney there's an admirably traditional feel, with a proliferation of original songs (by Steven Edis) all superbly choreographed by André Fabien Francis. Local references abound – the Demon Queen's dark realm is accessed via Dalston Underground – while political points are duly scored (a portal through which people pass to become zombies is the door to No 10).

However, if we're honest the whole thing does drag on (no pun intended) a bit longer than necessary. The first half in particular feels overstuffed with musical numbers, with many of the lyrics sadly lost in the sound system. It's a pity because Rowe is again on fine form, delivering a sprinkling of sweets, one-liners ("these are reel" he says in a dress made of old film), and vocal belts, including a sultry rendition of "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted".

Performance-wise it's less a golden egg than a curate's. Parker's villain scenes fall a bit flat, largely due to the convoluted nature of the Faustian bargain, but there are some gamey turns, notably from Hackney regular Kat B as the stooge figure in the slop routine, and Holly Mallett with some divine drumming skills. The young ensemble are also highly impressive in a broad range of dance styles. Other highlights include a classic sweet pun routine, some full-throttle audience interaction (shout out to Mark, who got fully Goosed) and the assured performance of Ruth Lynch as the scene-stealing Priscilla the Goose.

A section on the Empire's 120th anniversary pays tribute to the stars who've trod the Hackney boards over the decades, from Marie Lloyd and Harry Houdini to Julie Andrews and Louis Armstrong. It's fair to say that Rowe, now a veteran of 15 pantos, deserves his own place in that pantheon.