Aladdin pantomime at Hackney Empire – review

Clive Rowe’s 16th panto in north-east London runs until 31 December

Clive Rowe (as Widow Twankey) and Rishi Manuel (as Wishy) in a scene from Aladdin at Hackney Empire
Clive Rowe (as Widow Twankey) and Rishi Manuel (as Wishy) in Aladdin, © Steve Gregson

After 16 years starring in the Hackney Empire’s annual panto – and now with a few years as director under his belt – it’s beyond all possible doubt that Clive Rowe is the doyenne of dames. This year’s production of Aladdin doesn’t have any particularly unique concept and there’s nothing remotely deep smuggled into Will Brenton’s book, but it’s no less entertaining for it. There are some elements that aren’t the strongest and yet everything comes together in a very tasty pudding indeed, with Rowe sublime as ever as Widow Twankey.

The one novelty might be the way in which the show is more or less entirely de-orientalised, apart from the name of the title character (wouldn’t want to lose the name recognition) and Hack-Ne-Lah (twinned with Brigadoon) is probably a nod to Shangri-La. It’s homely and convivial and there’s a good mix of lively original music by Steven Edis and classic pop songs. “9 to 5” is a panto staple but no one can give it as much diva world-weariness as Rowe.

Hack-Ne-Lah oligarch Mildew Funk (squirrely George Heyworth) is making life unpleasant for the locals and trying to marry off his daughter Jazz. Aladdin (Fred Double), the only person in the world to be pure of heart, falls for the independently minded poor little rich girl Jazz (Isabella Mason, dressed in yellow plaid like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless), of course. Both are charming and sing well but it could be argued that no one goes to panto for the young lovers.

Making an entrance on a Lime bike dressed as a pink handbag, Widow Twankey strikes the fear of God into every man in the audience when she roams the aisles looking for a new love interest. Thankfully, chosen victim Marek (“Sounds like marriage” declares Twankey, getting ahead of herself) seemed flattered by the attention. There’s good support from Natasha Lewis’s villainous Abby-Na-Zaaar! and Kat B’s disco-dancing Genie but this is Rowe’s show.

Always a local affair (with visitors from further afield – “That’s two-and-a-half hours of your life you’ll never get back”, Rowe quips to a visitor from Sweden), audience response suggested that there were more Arsenal than Tottenham supporters in the audience (hurrah!) and Dalston is the subject of a few digs. It could do with a few more topical gags, after the year we’ve had, for a bit more bite.

Cleo Pettitt’s designs are a pleasure to look at. Home is a much more picturesque market than any real one in Hackney and the magical world is whimsically realised. Musical director Alex Maynard gets his moment in the spotlight and Myles Brown’s choreography has some acrobatic moments, performed by a strong ensemble of young professionals, teenagers and children.

There is a twist at the end, a nicely understated one. This is a pantomime with real heart and a winning innocence, and if it wouldn’t be half the show it is without Rowe’s ebullient warmth and absolute commitment to his craft, let’s use it as an opportunity to treasure him and protect him at all cost.

Featured In This Story


Closed: 31 December 2023