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Posts Tagged ‘Lotte Collett’

Suzie McKenna’s sensational revival of this 1980’s Sheldon Epps show, first seen in London in 1987, had a short run at Hackney Empire five years ago. It’s now moved West to the more intimate Kiln Theatre with the wonderful Debbie Kurup joining the cast, and it’s even better.

It’s more of a song cycle than a musical, though its surprising how much characterisation there is, with so little dialogue. The songs themselves tell the stories of The Lady, The Woman, The Girl and The Man who are all in residence in a Chicago hotel, three in their rooms and The Man mostly in the bar, with limited interaction between them. The twenty-six songs are more than just blues but they all come from the same period. They include a lot of numbers by Bessie Smith, with others by Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer and many more. Standards like Lover Man, beautifully sung by Sharon D Clarke, Taking a Chance on Love, Baby Doll and Take It Right Back sit side by side with less well known songs.

The four star performances just blow you away. Sharon D Clarke, within days of her last performance of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, delivers every song with conviction as The Lady looking back at her life. Debbie Kurup inhabits the troubled character of The Woman and delivers her songs such that we feel her pain. There’s a naivety to Gemma Sutton as The Girl, so vulnerable and needy that you want to protect her. Clive Rowe’s worldly wise The Man struts his stuff without a care in the world. They are accompanied by a superb band led by Mark Dickman, and Avgoustos Psillas’ impeccable sound ensures you hear every word and every note.

Robert Jones’ design and Lotte Collett’s gorgeous costumes locate the show firmly in its place and time, with beautiful lighting by Neil,Austin, and Susie McKenna’s direction and Frank Thornton’s choreography use the space to great effect, with the intimacy bringing something extra.

A faultless production with as fine a set of musical performances as you’ll find on any stage. Absolutely unmissable.

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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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I now declare the festive season over and the New Year happily begun. As has become traditional in recent years, attending the last performance of the Hackney Empire panto marks these in as joyful a way as you could wish for.

What’s left to say about this annual affair? Well, the quality never wanes. The theatre is forever welcoming. The audience engagement is second to none (coo-ee! you can do it Billy!). The ad libs are delicious. Writer / director Susie McKenna also casts herself this year as Vanity the bad witch, Sharon D Clarke gets a full role as Charity the good witch, and Clive Rowe is back with yet another wardrobe of colourful outrageousness from Lotte Collett, who I would hire as my personal stylist if I had the nerve. Almost every other member of this superb cast are regulars and the familiarity makes you feel like you’ve come home, if only for a few hours.

Mother Goose is today a less regularly performed panto, but Hackney did it last six years ago, the year before I first attended and became addicted. At the annual Hackneytopia Goose Fair, Mother Goose gets Priscilla the goose, and a lifetime supply of golden eggs, until her own vanity means she comes under the spell of bad witch Vanity and all is lost – well, until good witch (and Vanity’s sister) Charity, Mother Goose’s son Billy, Prince Jack and Princess Jill save the day. Even Vanity’s evil sidekicks Baron Barmy and Frightening Freddie turn against her. Much of the excellent music is specially written by Steven Edis and the vocals are superb – Sharon D Clarke and Clive Rowe singing together is a force of nature in itself.

It’s a riot of colour and there are opportunities for a whole load of animal characters and, given it originates in Charles Perrault’s 300 year old The Tales of Mother Goose, it also contains characters from that book’s other tales including Puss in Boots, Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, Bo Peep and Old King Cole. From a flock of geese flying over the auditorium onwards, the effects continue to make you smile to the very end.

The chances of me not being there next year are zero. Bliss.

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As much as I enjoyed this when it was first produced at the Donmar / Piccadilly in 1987 (I was on the Olivier Awards panel that nominated it as Best Musical, though it didn’t win; Sondheim’s Follies did), I wasn’t prepared to be as blown over as I was by this Hackney Empire revival. Sheldon Epps’ show is more semi-staged concert than musical, but I doubt it has ever been better sung or played as it is here. Faultless.

The setting is a Chicago hotel in 1939. Three women, each from a different generation, each with a different story, each with a connection to the man. This is really just a device to link and interweave the wonderful songs of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and others. Each character has their own space on stage – their hotel room, except the man who seems to be permanently in the bar! A couple of mute actor / dancers come on occasionally and interact with the four singers, but it is of course all about the music.

These are songs that you live, full of life experience and feeling, and the four performers all inhabit them like they lived them first, then wrote them. Sharon D Clarke, Clive Rowe, Paulette Ivory and Gemma Sutton are all sensational and superbly matched to their characters and each other. Their interpretation of the songs is extraordinary and I can’t imagine anything better. Mark Dickman’s band sounds wonderful, with the help of some of the best theatre sound I’ve ever experienced by Avgoustos Psillas.

I’ve enjoyed Gemma Sutton in fringe musicals, but here she’s a revelation (taking the role of a young Maria Friedman 27 years ago, so no pressure there then!). I know the work of Paulette Ivory less, but can’t wait to see her again. Sharon D Clarke has wowed me before, most recently in her Olivier Award winning performance in The Amen Corner, but this was the biggest wow. I think I’ve seen almost everything Clive Rowe has done since (and at) GSMD and he never disappoints.

Hackney’s brilliant regular panto team, director Susie McKenna and designer Lotte Collett, prove just as adept at staging premiere league musical theatre. As always at Hackney, the audience and the venue add that extra bit of magic that propels a good evening to greatness. A triumph.

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