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Dick Whittington and His Cat

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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There’s a flying fairy, an acrobatic cat, a chorus of local down and dirty rats, a thigh-slapping Dick – Joanna Riding, no less, wears pink jeggings instead of sheer tights, but let that pass – a wise-cracking, vaudevillian Alderman Fitzwarren, a giant ape and an underwater ballet after the shipwreck, where the hull splits in two.

What more do you want? Suffice to say that the Hackney Empire pantomime, even without Clive Rowe this year, has absolutely everything you would expect in a traditional Christmas show, including – I hadn’t forgotten – rhyming couplets and a spanking new dame who gives Adele a run for her money with the big song from the new James Bond movie.

Of course, the venue itself is half the excitement. Frank Matcham’s glorious, gilded pleasure dome is big enough for all of us, and the place purrs with delight as Susie McKenna’s production (she writes and directs the whole thing) unfolds at a cracking pace, even if the first half is ninety minutes long.

Twin poles of good and evil are represented by Rina Fatania’s chuckling, chattering Fairy Bowbells and Kat B’s dread-locked, super-cool King Rat. Joanna Riding’s Dick steers a middle path through painted front cloths, the Fitzwarrens’ kitchen – where she’s caught in a day-glo nimbus of sudden love with Alexia Khadime’s feisty, strong-limbed Alice – and the escape to the high seas after being falsely accused of robbing the Fitzwarrens’ safe.

It’s never clear why everyone else in the cast goes with her, but that’s another of panto’s inexplicable joys. Having chased each other round London town, they all find themselves chased around the desert island, absorbing an extra quest for the sacred sea-shell and an aquamarine mermaid for Darren Hart’s likeable Idle Jack.

Steve Elias, well-known as a musical theatre performer, is a revelation as Sarah the Cook, a Welsh widow with a big voice and a sudden craving for the “multilateral” charms of Hackney’s inclusive community. He combines outrageous music hall bravura with steely discipline in the classic manner, sporting a hilarious array of curly wigs, aprons and plastic bosom accoutrements.

Elias also co-choreographs the show (with Sam Francis), while the splendidly phlegmatic five-piece band under Mark Dickman doesn’t miss a trick, or a pratfall, in either the custard pie kitchen sequence or the roster of faintly familiar pop songs.

What I most admire about McKenna’s pantos - and this is one of the very best - are their generosity of spirit, colourful costumes and designs (by Lotte Collett), technical efficiency and absolute regard for panto lore, as embodied in the song sheet, Elias, Riding and Tony Whittle’s Eric Morecambe-like Alderman, a man for whom no gag, nor no skate, is too cheap. This is the perfect holiday outing.


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