Panto stars take the helm of The Empire's annual spectacular

Hackney Panto Jack and the Beanstalk

Tony Whittle and Clive Rowe are co-directors of the 2021 Hackney Panto - Credit: Perou

With lashings of slapstick, stunning costumes, and huge song and dance numbers, Hackney Empire's panto has a reputation as the biggest and best in town.

So when longstanding writer/director Susie McKenna moved on, there were big shoes to fill. Step forward regular stars Clive Rowe and Tony Whittle, who have worked together for 20 years.

When Jack and the Beanstalk opens on November 20 with Rowe as Dame Daisy Trot and Whittle as Councillor Higginbottom, it will be their 14th panto - but the first they've directed together.

Jack and The Beanstalk

Jack and The Beanstalk runs at The Hackney Empire in Mare Street from November 20 until December 2nd 2022 - Credit: Courtesy of Hackney Empire

"It goes without saying that Susie has left an incredible legacy, we were part of that so we understand and appreciate it," says Rowe. "But it would be foolish for me to take over the greatest panto in London without Tony."

Whittle, who has prior experience directing panto adds: "It's much easier having two of us. We share a similar sense of humour and have such a laugh."

They've been working on it through the pandemic, and apart making the length more family friendly and, "keeping away from Covid and politics," haven't tinkered with a winning formula.

"It's not something broken that needed fixing, we are keeping things traditional and straightforward while we get our feet wet," says Rowe.

Clive Rowe

Clive Rowe has played The Dame at Hackney Empire 13 times and this year takes on Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk - Credit: Perou

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He adds: "I didn't understand how much enjoyment I would get from creating something. You create as an actor, but you are in your own bubble. Creating the whole environment has been a great experience for me."

Although he rejected combining directing with playing Mother Goose - "the Hamlet of panto" - he's ended up in nearly every scene in Jack and the Beanstalk.

"Clive is running up and down doing his own part then getting behind the table again," says Whittle. "We are both wearing a lot of hats."

Asked what makes Hackney panto special, Rowe replies: "Family."

"The theatre itself functions as a family, and the beauty of the Hackney tradition is a connection to family. From the youngest to the oldest everyone in the audience is included and everyone valued. There's a basic core of truth that runs through any evening of fun entertainment, the narrative is never lost to the songs and jokes, so a five year old should walk away and understand it as much as a 90 year old."

For example they have a K Pop number: "kids will know what that is but for those who don't, it still has to be a good number."

With original songs, magic, a giant baddie and eye-popping sets Rowe promises "everything but the kitchen sink".

"No-one will feel they haven't go their money's worth."

"We want the kids to be exhausted when they leave the theatre," adds Whittle. "That's our gift to parents."

"We know this audience," says Rowe. "I don't know how you could do panto if you didn't enjoy it, I still enjoy it and one of the joys as a dame is working your audience and understanding what they want, a midweek schools matinee can have an absolute polar feel to an evening show."

They pledge to "keep a core truth of Hackney," to the Panto. Asked to define that, Rowe says "it's hard to put your finger on without making sweeping statements."

Whittle chimes in: "It must be working. They are still coming".

Jack and The Beanstalk runs at Hackney Empire, Mare Street, from November 20 until January 2, 2022.
 


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