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Posts Tagged ‘Kat B’

I’m told this will be Susie McKenna’s last year at the helm of the Hackney panto. I hope there’s someone waiting in the wings, as my theatrical year would not be complete without it. Perhaps that’s why I booked for the first weekend of the New Year, subconsciously banking 2020 already.

This year’s offering is Dick Whittington, who arrives on the Windrush with his cat, to be reunited with his mother, Sarah the Cook. Queen Rat’s mischief of rats includes a straw haired one called Boris, and there’s a very athletic gorilla, and a shipwreck, which provides the opportunity for an underwater scene. Dick, of course, gets to be Mayor, and to marry Alderman Fitzwarren’s daughter Alice. Queen Rat is kept in check by our good fairy Blowbells, and the cat is played by Kat B! Lotte Collette’s design is as captivating as ever, in particular her costumes for Sarah the Cook. The musical standards under Mark Dickman are sky high, with singing way better than just about any other panto.

Clive Rowe’s on great form as Sarah, petrifying every man of a certain age in the front stalls, but this year avoiding humiliating them onstage. Tarinn Callender has bucketloads of charm as Dick, with Hackney regulars Kat B brilliant as Uncle Vincent the Cat and Tony Whittle’s Alderman Fitzwarren playfully ad-libbing with Rowe. Christina Tedders seems to be a new face as Alice, as does Annette McLaughlin as Queen Rat, both excellent, and it’s great to see veteran Sue Kelvin as Fairy Blowbells, looking like she’s having the time of her life flying across the Hackney stage.

It’s impossible not to feel the warmth at Hackney Empire, and I so love being part of it. May it last at least as long as I do.

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This is the Hackney Empire team’s 20th panto, and my 10th (and second Aladdin). Five of the six leads clock up forty between them, led by Kat B with 15. Designer Lotte Collett clocks up 15 too, and MD Mark Dickman’s on his 9th. The loyalty of the creative team, the performers and the audience speaks volumes. Christmas would not be Christmas without a visit to Hackney. This year it’s a pleasure to have Clive Rowe and Tameka Empson back, as well as the wonderful Gemma Sutton make her debut.

If you were contemplating going ‘up west’ for ‘Disney’s Aladdin’, think again. There’s way more fun in the East End for a lot less money, and now I’ve seen both, I speak from experience. The seats might be plusher, but you won’t be with your panto family like you are in Hackney, and there’s absolutely no chance of Clive Rowe’s Widow Twanky flirting with you at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Given the far east setting, we’re actually in Ha-Ka-Ney with the Empress looking for a wealthy suitor for her daughter Princess Ling Mai, who falls in love with Aladdin, one of laundress Widow Twanky’s two sons, who is poor not wealthy. We’ve got both a genie of the lamp and genie of the ring and of course baddie Abanazar who whisks us all away to colder climes.

Amongst this years treats we have dancing pandas, Gaia the goddess of light, with a blue monkey face (voiced by the sensational Sharon D Clarke no less) and a dragon that will take your breath away. Both genie of the lamp and Aladdin fly. Designer Lotte Collett’s imagination has run riot, particularly with the dame’s costumes and headwear that features everything from washing baskets lines & machines to pagodas.

This year I was particularly impressed by the make-up, especially Kat B’s genie, and above all the musical standards, with fantastic vocals all round. Susie McKenna & Steven Edis’ 20th is vintage Hackney panto, a joy and an unmissable treat.

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We normally go to the Hackney Empire panto nearer to, or between, Christmas and New Year, but Christmas has come early and here we were in November.

There’s not a lot you can do to a story as iconic as this one, and they haven’t. There are, of course, local references and some current political snipes; Brexit and Trump, obviously. We also get a mini Strictly. Other than that, it’s a ‘vanilla’ Cinderella in the Hackney way, which means excellent production values, including Lotte Colette’s brash and colourful designs, returning regulars, both on stage and in the audience, and a largely new book and new score by Steven Edis (though with more known songs than usual, too many for me).

Writer & director Susie McKenna takes the baddie role as Countess Anastasia, Cinderella’s step-mother. Hackney regulars Kat B and Tony Whittle make a terrific pair of Ugly Sisters. Another regular, Darren Hart, charms the pants off us as Buttons. Stephane Anelli is a welcome newcomer as a very Italian Dandini (cue Brexit jokes) with great dancing, and hot on the heels (literally) of his Acid Queen at nearby Stratford East’s Tommy, it’s great to see Peter Straker’s returning to the Hackney panto as Baron Hardup.

Amongst this years highlights, we have pantomime horse Clapton, a pair of mice, another of those lovely luminous scenes and a flying horse pulling the carriage! One of the best lines came from the audience, whose participation was as enthusiastic as ever. MD Mark Dickman leads a fine quintet in the pit.

It’s not vintage Hackney, more to do with the choice of show I suspect, but any Hackney is a seasonal treat and the standards remain high and the spirits even higher. My posse were positive and we’re already looking forward to 2018.

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What’s left to be said about the Hackney Empire panto? A freshly minted script and score every year by Susie McKenna and Steve Edis respectively. Production values at least as good as a West End show, and better than many, with brilliantly colourful sets and costumes by Lotte Collett. Sky high musical standards that better any other panto, anywhere (and boy, can the class of 2016 sing!). Not a talentless ‘celebrity’ in sight. A warm community feel that makes you feel at home even if you’re from south of the river like me, or 100 miles further north like my guests. The only Christmas tradition I like and will never lose.

This year we have the tale of the Princess of Hackneytonia, daughter of King Eric the Undecided, promised to the neighbouring Prince of Westminsteria when she reaches 18, under the spell of the dark fairy Carabosse. We have not one, but three good fairies, and a delightful dragon called Denzil. Our Dame is the princess’ Nanny Nora. All the usual ingredients are there, including some slapstick and a sing-along. There’s a particularly good scene in a forest with luminous insects, a lovely Ogre and the arrival of a spectacular giant dragon. Susie McKenna’s scrip has just the right amount of political bite, with excellent well deserved swipes at two of the year’s real life baddies, Boris and Trump. Steven Edis has written some fine new songs and Mark Dickman’s band do them full justice.

The force of nature that is Sharon D Clarke is the dark fairy, who fortunately turns good as I couldn’t hate her for much longer, with great presence and powerful vocals. Alexia Khadime is charming as the Princess, also with great vocal prowess. Regular dame Clive Rowe has handed his pinnie to Gavin Spokes who, after a tentative start, won us over. Regulars Kat B has bags of charm as Denzil the dragon and once he too turns good, so does Darren Hart as Carabosse’s sidekick. Other regular Tony Whittle is a delightful bumbling King in keeping with his Undecided moniker.

Raving about this institution may seem a bit boring, but I can’t lie and the real thing is far from boring. Off you go……..

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Whilst commercial panto’s continue their decline with stale, recycled work (performed by recycled soap and reality TV stars), the subsidised sector continues to produce freshly minted pantos annually for and in their communities, and the East End has always been at the forefront. When I lived three miles away, Stratford East was my regular panto haunt. When I moved South West I dabbled a bit with the inferior fare in Richmond and Wimbledon, before I was lured to the big lights and big heart of Hackney Empire which I’ve made my panto home for the last six years. This year I got greedy and took in both Hackney and Stratford. 

Stratford’s offering is Robin Hood, something different. We saw the first preview, so we had to forgive a few teething problems, but their fresh take on an old tale was a treat. A cast of twelve and a three-piece band created enough raucous fun to have us participating in no time. Derek Elroy’s nurse was a damely treat and Michael Bertenshaw’s King John a great baddie. Oliver Wellington was a charming young Robin. Harriet Barsby and Jenny Tiramani conjured up forests, castles and prisons in bright primary colours. 

The difference in theatre size didn’t dawn on me until I got to Hackney Empire eight days later. It’s so much bigger and needs a panto on a much bigger scale – which it certainly gets in Susie McKenna’s glorious production of Jack in the Beanstalk, with sensational sets and costumes again by Lotte Collett. Both the production values and the performers will match or probably better any theatre in the land, and there’s a real sense of community on stage and in the audience. They’re back, and we’re back. Regular Dame Clive Rowe with a wardrobe to die for that this year included hats with cows, watering cans and a replica of the theatre itself. Kat B in his 11th year, this time as a Jamaican snowman! Tony Timberlake back to be booed again as Nasty Bug and Darren Hart charming once more as Clumsy Colin. The big bonus this year was the wonderful Debbie Kurup as a terrific thigh-slapping Jack. 

We had video contributions from Jon Snow and Robert Peston, the voices of Matthew Kelly as the giant and Sharon D Clarke as a singing gold harp, Buttercup the cow (obviously), and a brilliant giant. Jack climbed the beanstalk through space surrounded by silver dancing stars. There were dancing bugs and dancing penguins, kids from the local community, Goldiniah the chicken and a delightful Mother Nature from veteran Julia Sutton, which enabled some serious stuff about climate change to be woven in seamlessly (and very timely, the day after the Paris accord).

Two very contrasting pantos, but both huge fun, and both anchored in their community, refreshingly free of tacky commercialism and way better value. Deciding where to go next year is the easiest decision I’ll make all year.

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Is there no limit to the joy Hackney Empire can unleash during the festive season? Last year they lost (hopefully not forever) their regular Dame Clive Rowe and still came up trumps. This year they go ‘off piste’ with the rarer Puss in Boots and it feels like something new and familiar at the same time. Bliss.

Puss in Boots has somehow slipped from the panto repertoire. A 500 year-old tale made famous by Charles Perrault 200 years later, introduced to the UK another 100 years after that, with Joseph Grimaldi in the first cast. Now the cunning cat (brilliantly played with great athleticism by Kat B!) comes to Hackneyonia with his master who has inherited him from his father, whilst his elder brother got the mill and the donkey!

Here we get two dames – mother Nettie Knowall and daughter Amnesiah, played brilliantly by Stephen Matthews and Darren Hart respectively – a wicked witch played by Josefina Gabrielle and a wicked queen by Sharon D Clarke, both stars of musical theatre who shine just as brightly here, and King Konkers the Bonkers (an excellently hapless Tony Timberlake) and spoilt brat Princess Petunia (the lovely irritating Amy Lennox). Add in Matt Dempsey’s Thomas, a giant Ogre and a good sorceress and you have an abundance of superb performances.

Amongst the treats are a dance routine for colourful giant trainers (without people!), a trio of mice as backing singers for Puss, a tap dance to end Act I and a superb Les Mis spoof to open Act II. Just before the finale we got the singalong, obviously, and the sight of a couple of thousand people singing Madness’ It Must be Love in cat language with cat masks was a surreal delight. Lotte Collett’s design is a riot of colour and invention, with Dame Nettie’s costumes (and there a lot of them!) a particular treat.

This is Susie McKenna’s 15th Hackney panto. It’s only my 5th, but the imagination, enthusiasm, talent and energy hasn’t waned one bit. Steven Eadis has written a lot of excellent new music to add to a handful of known songs with a fair few nods to musical theatre, performed with exceptional musical standards by a small 5-piece band and singers who really can sing.

It might have West End production values and West End stars, but above all its a community pantomime which generates enough warmth to keep you going until the next one – here’s to Mother Goose in less than 12 months time!

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For the fourth year running I ended the theatrical year at the New Year’s Eve panto matinée at the Hackney Empire. Last year they survived without Dame Clive Rowe – Cinderella didn’t really need a dame, just two ugly sisters. This year I was a bit nervous going to see someone else (metaphorically) wearing his frocks and wigs, but from the moment of her aerial arrival to the bond theme (remember when you last saw someone do that?), Steve Elias’s Welsher-than-Welsh Sarah the Cook had us in her / his spell. Brilliant comic timing, superb costumes (Lotte Collett) and a great voice. Until then, it had been a slow start, but from then on it was a treat.

Last year’s baddie, Joanna Riding, was a lovely principal boy able to show off her even finer voice to full effect this time. Tony Whittle and Kat B move from ugly sisters to nice Alderman Fitzwarren and nasty King Rat respectively. There were lovely performances from Alexia Khadime as Dicks’ love interest Alice (another great voice), Darren Hart as Idle Jack and Stephen Emery as a very acrobatic cat. The fairy’s a trainee from Bollywood and there’s a terrific gorilla.

Add to that an underwater ballet populated by a mermaid, an octopus and all manner of tropical fish, a troop of monkeys back on land and of course, King Rat’s horde of smaller rats. There’s a great cat singalong with actions from the entire audience on its feet.. …and just to prove panto can be topical, all this usual cross-dressing means we end with three weddings, two of which are same-sex weddings! The customary singing of Auld Lang Syne with audience and cast linking hands makes a lovelier end to the year than bucketloads of booze and a sky full of fireworks. 

So it’s official – Hackney’s pantos are the best AND prove to be Rowe-proof. Oh yes they are! Now, Steve Elias AND Clive Rowe; a panto with two dames, Susie McKenna?…..

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