Sunday, 4 December 2022

REVIEW: Mother Goose at the Hackney Empire

The wonderful Hackney Empire has just finished celebrating its 120th year (though it has existed as a TV studio and Bingo hall for some of that time) with Mother Goose, a title first staged at Theatre Royal Drury Lane by the great Dame Dan Leno in May 1902. It stars and is directed by the irreprehensible Clive Rowe returning to the venue for his fifteenth pantomime of the last 23 years of Hackney pantomimes. It’s a magical venue with its impressive gold and red airy auditorium and uninterrupted views of the stage (thanks to Matcham’s cantilevered balconies) and a perfect setting for introducing young local audiences to the joy of live theatre.

As well as free tickets for Housing Association communities, refugees and young carers, the venue has an impressive track record with its Creative Futures programme which celebrates its 20th year of encouraging and developing young people and providing a safe space to explore new opportunities with a reported 20,000 young lives affected over that time. What better way to tempt new young talent to explore live theatre than a traditional Christmas Pantomime.

Though Will Brenton’s script does not innovate much of the Pantomime business, he and Clive Rowe do incorporate all the essential elements that have delighted audiences for years. The involvement of a young man from the audience, a slosh scene and a ghost bench scene, shoutouts, a transformation scene, a songsheet and a walk down. It is a crash course in essential traditional pantomime in which Clive Rowe is the master of ceremonies and all that goes on. There is good business and songs around the impact of social media on young lives and the film references to HackneyWood could have been developed more into a good subplot. The central message of looks doesn’t matter it's about having a good heart strongly underpins the story.

When they shoehorn in a tribute to the History of the Hackney Empire with references to Marie Lloyd, Harry Houdini, Julie Andrews and Louis Armstrong as well as a passing reference to the fabulous Barbara Windsor (who graced so many Pantomime stages). It's an enjoyable self-indulgence but it is Clive Rowe who takes centre stage with the 1976 hit “Disco Inferno” with its classic line “Burn baby burn”. It has nothing to do with the pantomime plot but was a fitting tribute to the venue.

Mother Goose is a less frequently performed title although it has all the usual pantomime plot lines of good vs evil, a larger-than-life dame, a love story, and a skin character but the story is thin without the standout moments of more popular titles. In Hackney, the transformation into the beautiful Mother Goose is simply staged without much illusion and the flying sequence rather obviously reveals the scissor lift below, but a venue like this can’t invest in the production like the Palladium or ATG’s Mother Goose and so relies on the energy and youthful zest of the cast to carry it off. 

Rebecca Parker is an impressively leggy Demon Queen revelling in the misery she inflicts while Gemma Wardle is an enchanting Fairy Fame in dungarees. Holly Mallett is a drum-playing Jill, the heroine protecting Mother Goose against her father (Tony Marshall) while falling for Jack (Ope Sowande). Kat B is the other son Billy full of energy and silliness who builds a good rapport with the audience with his “keep it real” shout-out, while Ruth Lynch is a magnificent Priscilla the Goose bringing pathos and humour to the non-speaking part!

But it is Clive Rowe’s show. He is a natural comic performer with a huge stage presence, a good voice and an engaging personality. He lifts the show when he is on, and the audience naturally delightfully responds to him. He is developing his skills as a Director, and I have no doubt that Hackney Empire will continue to develop and evolve its pantomime under his leadership over the coming years. They know how to appeal to their local demographic, and it is a good show but in time they will develop new twists to the genre (like Stratford East have done this year with Cinderella) and build a more satisfying and coherent whole. In the meantime, this is a venue that deserves all the support that you can give it and seeing the Pantomime is perhaps the easiest and most enjoyable way to get behind them and support their Creative Future. Oh Yes, it is!

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Circle, Row C | Price of Ticket: £30
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