Review: Sleeping Beauty (Hackney Empire)
The annual Hackney Empire pantomime stars Sharon D Clarke and Alexia Khadime
Susie McKenna's pantomimes for Hackney Empire are, quite rightly, an institution: they observe the panto traditions while bringing them subtly into alignment with modern sensibilities and they maintain a lovely connection to the community they're being performed right in the heart of. In addition to all that, McKenna's West End credentials ensure that theatre-savvy types enjoy the interpolation of showtunes that you probably wouldn't hear elsewhere in panto-land. This one features a Hamilton-rap and the "You're Timeless To Me" duet from Hairspray hilariously performed atop a pair of wayward Emu-esque creatures apparently hell bent on pecking each other to death.
Having said that, this Sleeping Beauty is something of a disappointment. The political-cultural nods are there (Brexit, Boris, Jeremy Hunt, the gentrification of Hackney are all referenced) and a couple of numbers really get the joint jumping (I defy anybody not to leave the theatre on a high after the joyously infectious "Can't Stop The Feeling" finale). Yet, at least on press night, the show as a whole feels slightly undercooked.
Pantomime is formulaic by its very nature but certain things here seem more 'by the numbers' than they should - the messy cooking scene that failed to ignite, the wan efforts by the Dame to engage individual audience members with a notably weak running gag, the perfunctory audience singalong.
There is still much to enjoy, chief among them Sharon D Clarke's bad tempered, wondrously imperious Jamaican bad fairy ("Bow down all you horrendous Hackneytonians"). Most of the moments when the show lifts off (and to be fair, there are quite a few) tend to be hers.
Plus there's Kat B: a Hackney panto regular and an unabashed joy as Denzil the dragon (yes really). Like Clarke, he works the audience in a way that eludes some of his less panto-experienced colleagues.
Gavin Spokes' Nanny Nora is a little subdued: likeable enough but lacking that spark of lunatic joy and inexplicable pathos that makes a truly great Dame. No qualms at all however about Alexia Khadime, utterly terrific as the eponymous 'Beauty' though she's no diffident damsel: rather she is funny, feisty, and very much her own woman. Plus she sings like a diva. This is a genuinely and refreshingly modern heroine.
It's a jolly night out, pitched at almost the right point between delighting the kids and not alienating the adults. It's just not quite the Hackney team at the top of their game.
Sleeping Beauty runs at Hackney Empire until 8 January.