Oh yes it is... the Hackney Empire panto is back - director Susie McKenna explains why it’s now the ‘one to beat’

Director Susie McKenna talks about the Hackney Empire production’s magic ingredients

Until the Hackney Empire panto I’d never been a fan of the genre – even as a kid, the tired-old predictable storylines never grabbed my imagination.

But the Empire’s pantomime is in a class of its own, and has become an unmissable fixture in my Christmas diary for its spectacle, jokes, laughter, and even the sense of pride it instils in being part of the Hackney community.

As I wait to meet its writer and director Susie McKenna, I spot MTV presenter and comedian Kat B rehearsing his role as King Rat for this year’s production Dick Whittington, which is due to open in just over a week.

“It’s the first time he’s played a baddy, there’s a part of him that loves to be loved, and he’s not going to be loved in this show,” laughs Susie, who used a Ladybird book on which to base her script about a poor boy whose cat’s ratting abilities lead him to become a wealthy merchant, and eventually the Lord Mayor of London.

“The kids need to understand a really clear storyline and then they stay with it, it’s all about the kids for me really, they have to be totally and utterly engaged,” she explained.

But layers in the show make it appeal to adults too.

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“I like to give the audience a sense of the past year, so you visit little moments of foolishness, whether that’s the expenses scandal or whether it’s the Olympics,” she said.

Alongside “magical moments” like massive flying horses and giants so big they take your breath away, the show stands out for its music, with number one hits thrown in – often at incredibly funny places.

“It’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s a twinkle to the adults, going, ‘Yeah we’re really doing this, we’ve gone that far’,” said Susie.

“That way they enjoy it on one level and the kids enjoy it on a different level, that’s the secret to pleasing everyone from youngsters aged three-and-a-half to 93.

“Also then, how can you ‘Hacknify’ something and make sure you produce a show Hackney is proud of, but also that the Empire is proud of, because we don’t have the funding to produce as much in-house as we would like.”

Since 1998 with Susie at the helm, the Empire has been staging the “Big Five” – Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Mother Goose and Jack and the Beanstalk, and with a ‘family’ of actors and technicians who have stuck by it, the team has grown in strength.

Perhaps this accounts for why the Empire’s panto is now regarded as “the one to beat” by other theatres, and why coach parties will travel down from as far afield as Birmingham.

Susie regards the audience as “the last member of the cast”.

“It’s what I love about theatre but particularly about panto,” she said.

“In one day you can have an afternoon show with 1,000 kids from Tower Hamlets, from every flippin’ walk of life, cheering and screaming, and in the evening you look and it’s all adults and they are all cheering like five-year-olds – and I feel I’ve done my job,” she continued.

“For me it’s about making everybody go back to their childhood.”

Susie didn’t get to see many pantos during her own childhood in Leicestershire – mainly because she was performing in them herself.

With professional singers as parents, she was on the stage with them aged three, and went on to train in classical dance, turning professional aged 18, appearing in West End hits like Cats, Chicago and Rag Time.

“It was amazing, bonkers, but great, and I will forever be in my parents’ debt for that, because I have the most amazing job in the world and it all came from them really,” she said.

Her passion for panto developed at the Nottingham Playhouse where she played the principal boy for many years from the age of 19.

“I’m a terrible tomboy and I loved it. I still did it in stiletto heels and fishnet tights, but the idea that I could make someone who looked like a woman get a seven-year-old boy cheering for you, you feel you’ve done quite well getting them on your side.”

Since she began writing her own scripts, Susie made a conscious decision never to kill off anything in her pantos – so King Rat this year finds redemption instead of death.

“Over the last few years particularly there are too many tragedies, too many kids being killed on the streets,” she explained.

“I know it’s only a fairy story, but in terms of fairy tales if you think about it the original Grimms fairy tales are often very violent and very horrific, most pantos don’t do the chopping off of the feet in Cinderella and all sorts of chopping off of heads.

“Fairly tales were meant to teach right or wrong and I think there’s a lot that kids need to know now about the pressures of life and love.

“There’s a lot of love going on in my shows and not being scared to call it love, whether that’s family love, or your best mate.

“I think it’s important a lot of love comes from the stage and that’s about having a fantastic group of ensemble people who hopefully have had a good three weeks preparing the show for everybody and hopefully that’s infectious.”

Susie is proud that this is the first year the whole cast of youngsters – some as young as 10 – is made up of local kids, including many from the Empire’s own flagship Artist Development Programme (ADP), headed by Susie.

She regards the biggest success story as Bradley Cumberbatch, who began with the ADP aged 13, and is now back after studying economics at uni playing a principle role as King Rat’s sidekick.

Susie added: “What I love more than anything in Hackney is you look out and you can see the whole of London there culturally, women with burkas on their head, Jamaicans, but also you see generations together, and I don’t think we get enough of that, we don’t even watch the telly together anymore, do we?

“People’s expectations are high so that’s quite a pressure, I hope we deliver, so I just keep my fingers crossed.”

The panto runs from today, Saturday December 1 to Sunday January 6, tickets are priced from �10 to �29.50. See www.hackneyempire.co.uk or phone 020 8985 2424 to book.