Hackney Empire panto Jack and the Beanstalk is cream of the crop

The fact that the Hackney Empire now gets a mention on the international Wikipedia webpage about ‘pantomime’ shows quite how popular and influential its festive shows have become.

Last year, Aladdin was lauded as the best in London. The superior quality was clear when another production of the same story – the theatre will remain nameless – saw Pamela Anderson dangled from the ceiling, silent and swim-suit clad in the role of the Genie.

The Hackney Empire also needs to draw in the crowds, especially after the year it has had. But Hackney has its own traditions and its own celebrities. And the outcome this year looks to be as excellent as ever.

Director and writer Susie McKenna brings the tried and tested formula of brilliant live music, eye-opening set designs and laugh-til-you-cry humour back to the spotlight with a reworking of the old panto favourite, Jack and the Beanstalk.

Buttercup the cow is there, the beanstalk is there, the golden hen is there. But everything is just a bit better.

Buttercup is in the running for the title of best pantomime cow in London. The golden harp has the voice of singing sensation Sharon D Clarke. The dame, played as ever by the fabulous Clive Rowe, is the only one to ever have been nominated for an Olivier Award. And you should see the giant!

This version of Jack and the Beanstalk starts off rather unconventionally with a plotline that few would recognise. The initial tableau is rather confusing but leads comfortably into the story that all know and that children love.

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The cast are full of beans. Jaygann Ayeh is suitably sweet but not sickly as the hero of the tale and, having just come from Avenue Q, brings real West End star quality to the stage. Tony Whittle makes his seventh panto appearance at the Empire as the deliciously evil Runner Bean alongside the brilliant Jennie Dale as Broad Bean. And Hackney favourite and long-time Empire supporter, DJ and TV presenter Kat B brings real originality as the Jamaican “Snoooooowman”.

Are we forgetting someone? Never. Clive Rowe takes centre stage once more as Jack’s doting mum, Dame Daisy. The audience sit up and start laughing as soon as he makes an appearance. He has everyone waiting on a single punch line and gasping at one roof-raising note.

The musical score, by Steven Edis, is a well-balanced mix of pop favourites – from ‘Dance with my Father’ beautifully sung by Ayeh to the more recent ‘Just the Way You Are’ by Bruno Mars – and original compositions. And the compulsory sing-along brings some much needed sunshine to a very snowy day.

Jack and the Beanstalk shows others just how to bring pantomime up to date without losing what everyone loves about it. It has tradition, silliness and lots of sparkle. And for the problems of a theatre which has been to the brink and back since this time last year, it is a very happy ending.

Jasmine Coleman

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