Politics and panto have always sat quite rightly hand in hand, as theatre companies make use of our bizarre British festive tradition to poke satire and slapstick at the outside world. The last few years have probably seen enough Trump and Brexit references in pantomimes to fill the House of Commons, and this year’s offering from the team at Hackney Empire is no exception, with its fresh take on Dick Whittington, the young man who moves to London to seek fame and fortune. Writer & Director Susie McKenna has transported the story to 1948, as our titular hero, played by Tarinn Callender, sails the HMT Windrush with the ship cat – quickly transformed into returning favourite Kat B. He’s reunited with his mother and one of the best Dame’s in the business: Clive Rowe as Sarah the Cook; falls in love with Alice (Christina Tedders), gets a shop job working for the Alderman (Tony Whittle), but is quickly stitched up by the villainous Queen Rat (Annette McLaughlin). Luckily, with a little help from Yiddish speaking Fairy Bowbells (Sue Kelvin), with heaps of shtick and chutzpah, all becomes well again.
There’s an incredible virtuosity and triple-threat spectacle to Hackney’s panto, often finding itself closer to a musical. The opening number, Callender’s rendition of The Impossible Dream is a marvellous start, nearly raising the roof in only the first few minutes. Richard Roe’s Choreography is a total standout throughout, the dances sharp and dynamic creating spectacular stage compositions. The tap dancing Aristocats number is a particular highlight, those infectiously delicious tap sounds reverberating through the stage and ringing out into the theatre. It’s a simply glorious routine, delivered with much talent from the ensemble.
Costumes are perhaps a little subtle at times, a pastel scheme of colours mostly, but with plenty of glittery gold to give the show it’s visual spark. Clive Rowe’s Dame appears in an array of colourful outfits, the gorgeous under the sea shimmery dress a personal favourite, and the jingling oranges with accompanying sound effects a highlight as well.
The story seems to have a few weak plot points, particularly the sacred seashell that is briefly introduced in the second act and then totally forgotten about until it reappears at the end. The tidy up is also a little rushed as the audience are encouraged to forgive Queen Rat, the sound of our cheers persuading her to change her ways with the sudden revelation that she was never liked as a child, something that could have been easily integrated a little earlier. The mess scene is also rushed through, and more of this would have been welcome.
The music selection is varied, ranging from Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande to one of the lesser known numbers from Gypsy, mixed in with some original music and a hit from the Greatest Showman for good measure. A slightly unusual selection, and one or two campier panto classics might’ve helped lift it a little.
With references to Brexit and multiple – including visual – references to Trump and Boris Johnson, the jokes become a bit tiresome and the audience quickly become bored of these. In 2017 it seemed to be collectively decided that the likes of Trump and Brexit were a joke enough within themselves that an attempt to make cheap jokes around the subject quickly becomes dry, and I don’t think it’s dealt with cleverly enough in this pantomime to be genuinely funny. That’s not to say that pantomime should avoid the subjects entirely – after all, a crucial aspect of panto is the satirising of topical politics – but it feels overcooked in this. A reference to the Windrush papers being “lost” on the other hand is perfect – it’s contextualised within the show and makes a real dig at our failing government, proving that politics in panto can work finely when it’s not too overtly funnelled in.
Press Night always feels tricky for a pantomime, and the cast does a good job at subtly referencing the slightly tired audience. Some of the jokes deserve a better crowd, although there was certainly at least a handful of us very much enjoying the unapologetic innuendo alluding to the pantomime’s title. There’s also audience participation a plenty, and a few stage mishaps make for great entertainment; Rowe’s wig coming off a particularly highlight and really what panto is all about.
Whilst the whole cast do a fine job, it really is Rowe’s Dame that stands out. Rowe is able to take total command of not just the stage but the whole auditorium, and the part feels almost under-written in this pantomime. He has a little flirt with someone in the audience and delivers a superb And I am Telling You.
Hackney have delivered another festive treat for the whole family, and a few lost jokes or plot holes can be forgiven for the splendid talent and spectacle on offer, in a very well justified recontextualization of Britain’s much-loved rags-to-riches story. Pantomime like any genre should always feel relevant for its audience, and this does a fine job at updating the story whilst maintaining the traditional feel.
Review by Joseph Winer
In Jamaica, young Dick Whittington is boarding the Empire Windrush, chasing the dream of a new life in the gold-paved streets of glorious London. Little does he know, magic awaits him and his enchanted feline friend far across the ocean… He’ll embark on the adventure of a lifetime: reuniting with his Mum, fighting rodent royalty, meeting an eccentric fairy and winning the heart of his true love – all whilst trying to find fame and fortune.
Hackney Empire’s Dick Whittington and His Cat promises its trademark magic and spectacle in a dazzling reimagining of the classic rags-to-riches tale which sails in from 23 November 2019 – 5 January 2020, starring Grande Dame Clive Rowe, as Sarah the Cook, who returns following an award-winning East End comeback last year to now mark his 13th Hackney panto appearance, plus panto debuts from Tarinn Callender (Hamilton) as Dick Whittington and Annette McLaughlin as Queen Rat (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child).
Dick Whittington and His Cat marks a record 21st Christmas pantomime from Writer and Director Susie McKenna with Original Music by Steven Edis.
The cast also includes Hackney favourites Kat B and Tony Whittle as Vincent the Cat as Alderman Fitzwarren respectively, and welcomes Christina Tedders as Alice Fitzwarren and Sue Kelvin as Fairy Bowbells.
DICK WHITTINGTON AND HIS CAT
A Hackney Empire Pantomime
Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street, E8 1EJ
First performance: Saturday 23 November 2019
Press night: Wednesday 4 December, 7PM
Final performance: Sunday 5 January 2020