Like the Rolling Stones, the Hackney Empire panto doesn’t have many new tricks these days. But the tricks it has are all still bloody spectacular, most notably pretty much every moment star-slash-director Clive Rowe is on stage. Sure, in the dame title role of ‘Mother Goose’, he reuses entire routines I’ve seen him do in previous pantos. But to return to my laboured simile, moaning that Rowe forces a bloke in the audience to repeatedly proclaim his love for him is like complaining the Stones always play ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’.
With his smouldering maneater schtick, total immunity to embarrassment, deadly way with a quip, world-class singing voice and formidable arsenal of ludicrously OTT outfits (courtesy of Cleo Pettitt), he is a one-man panto all by himself.
Let’s be honest here: Will Brenton’s social media satirising script is not nearly as sharp as this year’s Lyric Hammersmith; the Hackney panto has definitely lost some edge since former boss Susie McKenna left a couple of years back; there are some indulgent choices here including an earnest tribute section celebrating the Empire’s one hundred and twentieth birthday; it absolutely needs Rowe there to work.
But he is there and it does work, and he’s not the only bright spot: – panto regular Kat B’s hangdog Billy Goose is charming, there’s a very fun flying goose puppet, and while the show doesn’t really do politics, there is one absolutely phenomenal political gag near the end that sort of justifies the whole script.
If and when Rowe calls it a day, I think the Hackney panto will need dreaming up again: even in the McKenna era it generally relied upon him. But having committed to directing it every year for now he seems unlikely to be going anywhere any time soon, and as a performer he remains untouchable, pantomime’s one true superstar.