Births, deaths, marriages and laughs: Hackney Empire’s panto ‘family history’

Prince Charles with Dick Whittington dames Clive Rowe and Tony Whittle in 1999

Prince Charles with Dick Whittington dames Clive Rowe and Tony Whittle in 1999 - Credit: Archant

It’s important to the life of the theatre, and key to its survival and growth. Susie McKenna chats with The Gazette about the history of panto at the Empire

A poster from Aladdin in 2005

A poster from Aladdin in 2005 - Credit: Archant

Oh, yes, it is... Another panto season is under way, with Sleeping Beauty’s opening night at the Hackney Empire tomorrow night.

Pantomime has been a firm fixture in creative director Susie McKenna’s festive calendar since she started directing and performing in them at the Mare Street venue 18 years ago.

After the building once again became a theatre in the 1980s – following a stint as a television studio and bingo hall – she recognised the need for the Empire to have its own “multicultural panto” to “show the melting pot that is Hackney”.

The first production was Dick Whittington in 1998. Susie remembers how they had to “go around begging, stealing and borrowing” to pull it off. It was “terrifying”.

Alexia Khadime and Sharon D Clarke in Sleeping Beauty

Alexia Khadime and Sharon D Clarke in Sleeping Beauty - Credit: Archant

The cast included Clive Rowe and EastEnders actress Anita Dobson.

Then in 1999 Tony Whittle and Sharon D Clark came on board for Cinderella. Many of the same cast still appear in the show to this day.

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The panto raised £7.5million and launched an appeal to raise £22m for the refurbishment of the theatre. Prince Charles was in the audience, invited by supporter and comedian Gryff Rhys Jones, as well as entrepreneur Alan Sugar and supermodel Jerry Hall.

They all attended a £750-a-head fundraising gala dinner in the town hall with the prince afterwards.

Gavin Spokes as the dame and Alexia Khadime playing Sleeping Beauty

Gavin Spokes as the dame and Alexia Khadime playing Sleeping Beauty - Credit: Archant

Susie said: “Panto has always been very important, certainly in the life of the theatre. It’s been key to the Empire’s survival and growth.

“It’s the big show for us and the one that brings in more money than any funding we get.

“I find it funny people are snobby about pantomime. Panto pays for Pinter. Panto pays for risk.

“Also it represents all our ethos in one show – emerging talent is on the stage, there’s a multi-racial company, and it’s about accessibility. People come from all over London to see it.”

They started picking up members of the team, and MTV presenter Kat B joined in 2002 for Mother Goose. After the multi-million-pound refurbishment they re-opened in 2004 with Aladdin.

“That’s when it really got put on the map,” said Susie. “The Old Vic were doing Aladdin too starring Sir Ian McKellan, so all the posh papers came to compare it.

“I honestly thought we were going to be rubbished – and the opposite happened.

“Suddenly they discovered Clive Rowe as a dame and that there was a bit of magic going on at the Hackney Empire at Christmas and we’ve never looked back.

“It was a turning point in it becoming ‘the London panto’.”

They have had a “lot of laughs” over the years, and with Dick Whittington in 1999 they couldn’t afford any of the big puppets or special effects people are now used to. All they had was Godzilla’s head, which was worn by Carl Paris who was in the ensemble – and is still part of the show now as choreographer.

Susie said: “His body was just his body. He would poke his head around a big tree he was standing behind and everyone would be screaming. One day the tree that was supposed to hide him fell down and he didn’t know. You had this stick man body in lycra with this big head acting away.

“The rest of the cast were wetting themselves and then he suddenly realised he was exposed to the audience.”

The cast have also seen many births, deaths and marriages over the years.

“We have had babies born from people meeting in the panto,” said Susie.

“We are literally a family. I get loads of people saying: ‘I came to see the show as a kid and now I bring my kids, too.’

“It’s humbling and you realise it’s become a tradition for people.

“It’s an important time of year when generations come together. I find it a big responsibility.

“We knew we were building a small acorn from which we hoped a great oak would grow, but I don’t think we ever dreamt it would still be going now. If someone said that to me I’d have laughed – a lot.”