Aisha Jawando as Cinderella, Kat B and Tony Whittle as the Ugly Sisters in Hackney Empire's Cinderella. Photo: Robert Workman
With its eyebrow-raising mid-October opening, Hackney Empire’s festive family show traditionally tends to kick off the annual panto season. Another tradition is Hackney’s nineteen-year writing partnership of Susie McKenna writing and directing alongside composer, Steve Edis. Next year’s twentieth anniversary will be quite an achievement for the creative pair. The fact that McKenna also takes a leading role in her own show may be the subject of separate debate but, in general, this year’s 1930s telling of Cinderella is a success ...while not quite achieving that ultimate wow-factor.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of magic, far from it. But it can’t be easy to put together a couple of hours of non-stop, laugh-out-loud shenanigans. Trimming twenty minutes from the run-time would no doubt help; there aren’t many youngsters whose attention span stretches beyond two one-hour acts, and if you lose that vital part of the auditorium then you’ll know it. It's a great shame that Mini Sardines was off school with a bug and had to miss Hackney's show as he is my ultimate barometer.
With regular dame and musical theatre veteran Clive Rowe performing with Al Murray at Wimbledon this year, Kat B and Tony Whittle return to Hackney and step up with a solid job as the Ugly Sisters – pantomime’s only ‘dame’ baddies (the reason Rowe turns down Cinderella). Tirelessly the pair work extremely hard, however, despite the duo's merciless picking on poor 'Danny' in the stalls, the absense of a slosh-scene or even a cleverly written joke-scene was a shame.
Aisha Jawando’s panto debut in the title role brings plenty of sass and sexual equality to nicely balance the recent arguments fired at some of the female fairy tale role models. That said, the decision to tone down and thus avoid devastating younger members of the audience when Cinderella’s invitation to the ball is ripped up by the Uglies is questionable... the deeper the dips the higher the crests.
Peter Straker’s return to Hackney as Baron Hardup is a strong one, although I suspect his solo number, Human, while an artistic highlight, probably ticks a contractual box rather than adds anything to advance the show’s appeal to the younger onlookers. Darren Hart as Buttons is another Hackney regular and may need a little time to bed himself into the show and use his fourth wall 'pass' to maximum effect; the painfully repeated requests to have the audience up on their feet during the song-sheet really needs to be ditched.
Susie McKenna’s evil step-mother is in safe hands with the experienced panto supremo, and Stephane Anelli brings Dandini to life in a refreshingly glorious style, including a real post-interval song and dance treat of a routine when the second act opens at the palace ball.
It’s very easy to underestimate the amount of work that goes into a theatre’s biggest selling show of the year, but unfortunately we live in a cruel age where expectations are increasingly demanding - and unforgiving. While Hackney’s Cinderella is certainly a strong start to this year’s panto season, when we look back at the end of January, I fear it will struggle to stand out as one of this season's vintage productions.
Stephane Anelli as Dandini (centre) and company in Hackney Empire's Cinderella. Photo: Robert Workman