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Preview: Aladdin at Hackney Empire

PUBLISHED: 10:20 20 November 2018

Writer Susie McKenna combines with music composer Steven Edis for their 20th anniversary pantomime this Christmas. Picture: Darren Bell

Writer Susie McKenna combines with music composer Steven Edis for their 20th anniversary pantomime this Christmas. Picture: Darren Bell

Archant

One of the most popular pantomimes in London returns this Saturday for a landmark production written and directed by Susie McKenna.

Clive Rowe appears as Widow Twankey and Eastenders' Tameka Empson plays The Empress. Picture: mrperouClive Rowe appears as Widow Twankey and Eastenders' Tameka Empson plays The Empress. Picture: mrperou

The odds were stacked against Susie McKenna and Steven Edis when they combined to put on their first panto at Hackney Empire in 1998.

Their production of Dick Whittington was put together on a shoestring budget, with McKenna having to drive a van to the Midlands to “pinch bits of sets” from her friends in the industry who were also putting on Christmas shows.

From these modest and challenging beginnings, McKenna (as writer and director) and Edis (composer) are about to bring their 20th pantomime to the big stage, as their production of Aladdin begins on Saturday.

Celebrating two decades worth of festive shows is a special feat – something that McKenna says feels: “really amazing, but weird at the same time.”

Rowe and Empson are joined by Julie Yammanee and Gemma Sutton, who play Princess Ling Mai and Aladdin respectively. Picture: mrperouRowe and Empson are joined by Julie Yammanee and Gemma Sutton, who play Princess Ling Mai and Aladdin respectively. Picture: mrperou

“If someone had told me 20 years ago that we’d still be here now I would have told them they were crazy.

“It’s been quite an adventure but likewise it feels like it has been about five minutes – I don’t feel any different. I still have the same passion for it and I can’t wait to start!

“With the 20th one, there’s always the same pressure since we’ve been doing well critically. You’ve got to be bigger and better; we are in competition with ourselves.”

The Mare Street venue’s annual panto has become one of the most popular for families all over London, which is due in no small part to McKenna’s passion and commitment to her role.

This year, she’ll oversee a tale set in the Far East End, on the island kingdom of Ha Ka Ney.

The Olivier Award-winning Clive Rowe is back for his 12th pantomime here, while Tameka Empson of Eastenders fame features as The Empress. Gemma Sutton takes the role of Aladdin, Julie Yammanee is Princess Ling Mai and Kat B stars as the Genie of the Lamp.

“We’re looking to transport people to a really fun, crazy world that will help them to leave all of the madness of what is happening in our country right now behind,” adds McKenna.

“There is loads of magic, lots of slapstick comedy, songs that the audience will know but also songs that have been especially written. It should be an event of pure escapism to bring families together over Christmas – they can expect a bloody good laugh and some great performances.”

McKenna, who also worked as an actor for 30 years, says that keeping the panto relevant and accessible for a local audience has played an important role in increasing its appeal for people across London.

“When I first started out I felt that Hackney Empire should have her own panto that really reflects the melting pot that is Hackney and London in general.

“I wanted to do a show that really pushed its production values and its storytelling; the storytelling in our panto has always been the most important thing which is a different approach to some other shows.

“We’ve hopefully created something that people want to come back to although I don’t take it for granted – even for people who have been coming back three, five or 10 years.

“We’re striving to make it as good as it can be, ensuring children are totally involved and also adults can have a great time as well.”

The recent success of the venue’s Christmas show also owes much to Edis, who marks two decades of curating the music programme with his work on Aladdin.

“We were talking about this the other day: marriages don’t last this long!” says McKenna of her creative partnership with Edis.

“He’s an absolute genius, he will just sit there and turn my terrible lyrics in to proper ones. He lived around the corner to me in Hackney when we first started, and by some miracle we are actually still that close to each other where we live now, in Finsbury Park.

“Working alongside people that you know very well can help you push each other, and to have that support has been the main reason it has been successful. I even met my wife while putting on one of these shows – I can’t complain!”

Aladdin at Hackney Empire starts this Saturday and continues until January 6, 2019. For more details and tickets, click here.

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