Jack and The Beanstalk: Hackney Empire ***

This review should really be three and a half stars because it's great to see the old Empire gang back together doing what they do best, and who can resist a panto that has paper boys waving copies of the Hackney Gazette shouting 'read all about it?'

If at times it misses the giddy wisecracking misrule of the best panto, the joint directorship of Clive Rowe and Tony Whittle proves to be two safe pairs of hands following the departure of long running writer/director Susie McKenna. All boxes are ticked, Cleo Pettit's brightly coloured sets, a delightful long-lashed pantomime cow, shout outs, a singalong, and Rowe's consummate dame in a succession of outrageous frocks, including a welsh dresser with 'roomy drawers'.

Austerity has hit Hackney-on-the-Verge where Zoe Curlett's lip-curling baddie Fenella Fleshcreep has stolen a golden harp and a magic ring. Cue feisty heroes Jack Trott (a fine voiced Rochelle Sherona) and Jill Higginbottom (Ellie Ruiz Rodriguez) who with the help of some beans courtesy of Julie Jupp's wilted Fairy Fuschia, climb the beanstalk and fight off some fearsome tap-dancing cockroaches and a slightly dozy giant to snatch them back.

They are aided by Empire regular Kat B as a genuinely sweet Simple Simon with spot on comic timing and impressive breakdancing moves. There's a running Queen lyrics gag with Whittle's Freddy Mercury tribute act, and a custard pie wet scene to a reworked Twelve Days of Christmas that's a brilliantly choregraphed piece of panto mayhem.

And of course Rowe is brilliant, with pipes that can belt out a soul classic, and the chops to bully an audience member into shouting 'I love you' every time the Dame walks in.

With no smut, Covid or politics, it's firmly a family show, but I missed some of the street smarts, adult humour, and flights of fancy of previous Empire outings. And while Steve Edis' original songs are rousing, it's lacking a couple of really well known pop numbers. But if a panto's task is to send everyone out into a cold December afternoon feeling happy then it's job done.