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Matthew Pearson

Dick Whittington and His Cat, Hackney Empire Pantomime 2019

Our review of Dick Whittington and His Cat, the Hackney Empire pantomime for 2019, including...

  • A little of what to expect
  • A little of what the pantomime means for Hackney and the Hackney Empire
  • And more

The Hackney Empire Panto

The Hackney Empire pantomime is a much cherished mainstay of the London Christmas calendar. It’s been going strong for over 20 years. Even while Hackney’s last remaining purpose-built theatre was fighting on all fronts just to keep going, its pantomime flourished, bringing in crowds, money, reliably good reviews and much needed press attention. And it’s certainly not without reason that it keeps getting hit with the spotlight, even as more and more shows come along needing some of that light themselves. Shows that boast bankable stars, as well as plots and songs already well-known to kids and their pocket money purchasing power. [caption id="attachment_5823" align="alignnone" width="1000"]

Matthew Pearson for London Pass[/caption]

A Proudly Local Show with a Big Reach

But Hackney Empire’s annual panto has things in abundance that few others can offer. It feels genuinely local, and proudly so. And the panto makes its lack of interest in celebrity and trends into a deliberate, profitable, joyful unconcern. It has the low-key inclusiveness and sense of neighbourhood celebration of a local theatre production, but the sense of occasion, confidence, consistency and togetherness of a much higher stakes, bigger budget show. There’s no doubt this is partly down to stability and unity off stage and on. Writer-director Susie McKenna and her team—including composer Steven Edis, choreographer Richard Roe and production designer Lotte Collett—have been putting together these Hackney-themed festive shows for years. Their joy in collaborating with one another is clear throughout, as is their commitment to creating a spectacle that relies on harder-fought things for its spectacularity. Things like a genuinely entertaining script that zips between subversion and tradition without overdoing either. Or the handpainted sets that feel untouchably magical and replicable in equal measure, like the backdrops from early 90s kids TV shows. No one is dancing on ice here. There are recognisable musical moments, but it isn’t two and a half hours of ‘Let It Go’. [caption id="attachment_5824" align="alignnone" width="1000"]

Matthew Pearson for London Pass[/caption]

A Troupe of Actors Happy to Be There and Ready to Show It

On stage, it’s hard to look beyond Clive Rowe, the Grand Dame Olivier Award winner, back this year for his 13th Hackney panto appearance. Playing Sarah the Cook—mother to our hero, Dick—he’s rarely offstage after his introduction, playing with an audience member in the first half. Rowe’s delivery of jokes good and bad—and castigation of the audience for rolling their eyes at the bad ones—help make this is a piece of fun theatre even the surliest of teens will snag onto. He’s an encouraging presence, having fun stealing and sharing the stage, giggling when things go wrong with wigs, and perking up the audience when the too-hot hall gets even too-hotter midway through the second half. The outfits, the hair, the moments he gets to show off his singing voice...it’s wonderful to watch him in full flow. Tarinn Callendar, known for his role in the UK production of Hamilton, is endlessly enthusiastic and infectiously positive as the starry-eyed, incorruptible Dick Whittington. All he knows is that he loves a girl, he loves London, he loves Hackney and he loves the Hackney Empire. [caption id="attachment_5820" align="alignnone" width="1000"]

Matthew Pearson for London Pass[/caption]

A Refreshingly Aware, Smart Script

The show doesn’t shy away from the reasons why he might not love those things, or why his loving those things might be a problem. Alice Fitzwarren, his Irish love interest played by Christina Tedders, says that there are those who would not approve of their relationship. She mentions signs up in town: ‘ No dogs, no Irish, no—’ and then Dick cuts her off. Dick arrives in London on the Empire Windrush at a time when The Blitz has reduced parts of the city to rubble. He’s welcome, but is soon warned—by his magical cat companion—to make copies of his papers. The Home Office have a habit of losing their copies, he says. There are a couple of Trump and Brexit references, as you’d expect. But it’s the references to racism in the UK, prejudice and the difficulties experienced by immigrants and anyone seeking a new start that really cut through. The difficulties in being accepted, in feeling welcome, in feeling like you are home. The Dick Whittington story is perfect for exploring these themes, both with a light touch and a righteous hammer. Oh, and there’s a rat called Boris. He and his rat friends were all educated at the same place. That place? Eton. [caption id="attachment_5825" align="alignnone" width="1000"]

Matthew Pearson for London Pass[/caption]

A Panto for Hackney and Beyond

It’s a panto for Hackney, that’s for sure. Dick loves the place and so do the show’s creators. The backdrop showing Mare Street and the Empire is the best of the night. Simple, true to life, with just a little glittery magic shimmering on top of it. The cast came out afterwards to turn on Hackney’s Christmas lights. It’s a big deal for the local community. But it reaches out far beyond its postcode. It isn’t without reason that the festive productions at this local theatre have gained national attention. Even without big stars in the cast. Maybe even because of their absence, allowing local favourites to shine and give their all to a production people seem genuinely proud of—cast, crew and audience. The storytelling is engaging and rich in cultural commentary, while steering clear of gimmicks and, in the end, being all about getting kids in seats, then up and dancing, clapping and singing along. If you’ve got kids, take them along and they’ll have a blast and so will you. If you don’t, like I don’t, there are few such wholesome, happy ways to spend your time this winter. You deserve it. Dick Whittington and his Cat is on at the Hackney Empire 23 November - 5 January. Tickets between £10 and £38. For more details and to book, click HERE. So, that's our review of this year's Hackney Empire panto, Dick Whittington and his Cat. If you have any other pantos to recommend for Christmas 2019, let us know below. And don't forget to tell us what you thought of Dick Whittington and his Cat. Here are some other ideas on how to fill this year's Christmas time off.

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