It was such a treat to be invited back to the Hackney Empire pantomime for their 2018 production, ALADDIN. The first panto I ever reviewed was Puss in Boots at Hackney Empire, featuring Kat B. For years, I had envisioned pantomimes as a cringe-fest to be avoided, but the Hackney Empire proved me wrong. Oh yes they did…
20 Years of Pantomime at Hackney Empire
Billed as the best panto in London, this year Hackney Empire celebrates 20 years of audiences screaming ‘he’s behind you!’ Aladdin also sees the welcome return of Clive Rowe as Widow Twankey, along with the fantastic Tameka Empson as Empress of Ha-Ka-Ney aka Mamasay Mamasa Mamacoosa (hee hee). Made popular by the famous Disney animation, Aladdin is a hodgepodge of ancient Chinese and Middle Eastern folk tales. The narrative centres on a streetwise urchin who wants to better his life, and the world around him.
Aladdin: Boy/Girl Meets Girl?
In the Hackney Empire’s version, Aladdin is played by a girl (Gemma Sutton). Panto roles are often gender-fluid, and Gemma brings a boyish energy to Aladdin, while making little effort to hide her femininity. Her brother Dishi (Alim Jayda) gets all the best dance routines, including the inevitable Fortnite moves and flossing. My boys kept giggling and shaking their heads like ‘make it stop!’
Aladdin falls for Princess Ling Mai (Julie Yammanee), but the Empress ain’t having it and orders his execution. Then Aladdin’s so-called uncle, the evil wizard Abanazar (Tony Timberlake), rescues him just in time. Abanazar sends Aladdin into a cave filled with lost treasure, to recover a magic lamp. When Abanazar abandons him in the cave, Aladdin rubs the lamp and releases a genie (Kat B). The genie grants him three wishes, but will Aladdin’s new riches and princely title be enough to win the girl of his dreams?
A Brilliant Night Out
From the opening strains of Sharon D. Clarke’s powerhouse vocals (as the voice of Gaia, goddess of light), to the dancing-in-your-seats finale, Aladdin is sheer joy. I’m always impressed by the creativity and attention to detail in the sets and costumes. This year, I was craving one of Empress Tameka’s ‘statement’ fans (my favourite one simply read: Cha!).
Clive Rowe’s comic timing is second to none and his voice will give you goosebumps. Tameka Empson deserves her own show. The cast are great all round, with special nods to Kat B who makes the genie crackle, and police duo Constable Ackee (Michael Lin) and Sergeant Dumplin’ (Tony Whittle).
One thing I love about panto is it’s one of the few places you’ll hear adults and kids properly cracking up over the same cheesy joke. Some of the gags fly right over the little one’s heads, but it’s a brilliant outing for the whole family.
In 20 years, Ezra and Jed won’t be old enough yet to give us grandkids (we hope)! But I dream that, in the not too distant future, they’ll bring their own kids to Ha-Ka-Ney (or Hackneytonia, or whatever they’re calling it then). And that they’ll sit side by side, chuckling like mad, at what’s still the funniest, fiercest, most fabulous Christmas panto in town.
Aladdin at Hackney Empire (Babes Review)
Jed, age 9
‘Great show, as always. I liked when Dishi met the panda and also when the Empress came in. I enjoyed every bit of it and I’m looking forward to seeing it again next year. I would rate it 9 out of 10!’
Ezra, age 12
‘I thought it was really funny, especially Widow Twankey. I liked how they included audience participation and threw out sweets and sprayed water on everyone. It was really family-friendly and it lived up to my expectations from previous Hackney Empire pantos. I also liked how they used a girl to play Aladdin instead of a typical boy. It was funny how the Empress’ fan always had what she was going to say on it. My rating? 9 out of 10!’
Hackney Empire: Aladdin at 291 Mare St, E8 (Hackney Central overground). All ages. 1pm, 1.30pm, 2.30pm, 5.30pm, 6pm, 7pm & 7.30pm (times vary daily, check site); £10-£38 (Nov 24-Jan 6)