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Posts Tagged ‘Tony Whittle’

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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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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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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The third annual New Years Eve trip east, this year somewhat nervously in the knowledge that their resident Dame, Clive Rowe, is otherwise engaged in the hugely enjoyable Ladykillers in the West End. Still, its Cinderella, so no Dame needed……

What we do get is a simply terrific baddie in the normally lovely Joanna Riding’s Wicked Stepmother (with a range of killer costumes and a Lady Gaga song to sing) and two of the best Ugly Sisters I’ve ever seen – veteran Tony Whittle and ‘newly crossed over’ Kat B – with terrific chemistry between them and as outrageous a wardrobe as you’d hope for.

This years animal collection includes the customary pantomime horse, two mice voiced by Clarke Peters and Sharon D Clark no less and a white animatronic winged horse who rises up towards the sky pulling Cinderella’s carriage – yes, you heard me,  A White Animatronic Winged Horse! Eat your heart out, Betty Blue Eyes.

The Empire was packed. The man plucked from the audience to be humiliated by the Ugly Sisters was a lawyer called Cassius! (and they managed to sew his name onto a pair of giant knickers by the shoe trying-on scene). By the time the entire audience, cast, crew and ushers were linking hands for Aulde Lang Syne, there was a glow warm enough to survive any winter.

I think three years in a row means it’s now officially annual. I can’t think of a more uplifting way to end the year, with more than a thousand strangers who feel like your best friends.

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Back to Hackney Empire for the second year running to end the year at their now legendary panto. This Victorian theatre is made for panto and you can’t but get caught up in the excited anticipation of the full house. Before the curtain has risen on Susie McKenna’s production, you feel part of a community even if you don’t know another soul in the building.

This year’s concoction has Jaygann Ayeh an unfeasibly lovable Jack, his naive cute friend Silly Billy (David Roberts) and Chloe Taylor’s Off Her Trolly Molly infatuated with Jack and loved by Billy. Vegetable references abound with the good fairy Sweet Pea (Abigail Rosser) and baddies Runner Bean, panto veteran Tony Whittle  and Broad Bean, Jenny Dale. Then there’s Dame Daisy, the larger than life Clive Rowe who is now so at home as a dame he may be in his own groundhog day, struggling to get back to legit plays and musicals!

Add in an excellent beanstalk, a Shrek-like giant, a hip-hop snowman (Kat B), the customary cow and a singing gold harp! Yes, a singing gold harp! We even get a small troop of dancing flowers and dancing vegetables. I thought we got a few too many references to TV and too many familiar pop songs this year, but this is a bit of a niggle when what we have after all is the real deal – proper panto rather than celeb-laden mediocrity.

It’s only the second year I’ve been to Hackney on New Years Eve afternoon singing Auld Lang Syne arm-in-arm with the good folk of East London, but I have a suspicion it’s already a tradition. Bliss.

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