REVIEW: ALADDIN (Hackney Empire) ★★★

For many, pantomime season signals the official beginning of Christmas and all the magic it has to offer. Panto is no longer limited to the traditional; you can find purely ‘adult’ ones and some very alternative takes on the classic formula, and this production at the much-loved Hackney Empire is no different.

We find ourselves in the far away land of Ha-Ka-Ney, China, where young Aladdin (Gemma Sutton) longs to marry the beautiful Princess Ling Mai (Julie Yammanee) and find his fortune. Along the way he encounters our treacherous villain Abanazar (Tony Timberlake) who stirs up a whirlwind of trouble, but with the help of two magical genies and a cast of friends, Aladdin is surely a match against evil.

So, this is a mixed bag of comments from me. Let me start by saying that there were three glistening stars in Ha-Ka-Ney this night, and they were our dame, Widow Twankey (Clive Rowe), the kingdom’s Empress (Eastender’s Tameka Empson) and Genie of the Lamp (Kat B). A trio of very experienced actors with connections to the Hackney Empire and a fantastic affinity with comedy, the audience was alive with warmth and laughter whenever they stepped onstage. Rowe and Empson are a delicious duo with an electrifying energy between them as co-stars, and Kat B was the ideal choice as our charismatic genie.

However, the major issue with this production is that it is trying to do too much. Rather than feeling constantly entertained, myself and others felt rather impatient and confused throughout, beginning with the somewhat bizarre introduction from the Goddess of Light, an 8ft monkey. You see, appealing to both adults and children is a difficult feat. The script is pulling in totally different directions, one minute using (very amusing) political satire that only mature minds can appreciate, and then reverting to very slapstick chunks of dialogue. Pantos are usually most effective when they have a clear direction: either slapstick and focused on the younger age range, or mature content for purely adult audiences – at least then the theme is identifiable. Because this script was trying to please everyone, it meant that roughly only half of the audience was amused at any one time, and many jokes fell flat without any reaction at all.

There were a few moments of comedy brilliance, always in the scenes with Rowe and Empson, but the interactions in other scenes felt more like ages 3-7 and very cringe-worthy in places. I am still struggling to understand why the awkwardly-performed panda song was necessary (I don’t think I will ever get to a conclusion), amongst a few other unnecessary plot lines, and wish that the production had been far more aware of its audience from start to finish.

Nevertheless, despite the issues with the script, there were some excellent moments in the Hackney Empire’s ‘Aladdin’, mostly due to the visual effects. An excellent set, beautifully designed and curated, with eye-catching and festive details. The flying dragon was truly spectacular and one of the best large props I’ve ever seen on stage.

The original songs were very entertaining (minus the panda song – please, never again) and the incorporation of modern songs (i.e. songs by Jess Glynne and current artists) will appeal to many pop lovers. Similarly, dance numbers and general staging of the scenes were well choreographed. The production is extremely multi-cultural and reflective of modern-day society, welcoming diversity of ethnicity and sexual orientation (amongst other key characteristics). I do wish that Aladdin had been presented as completely gender-neutral, as this was joked about at one point but then forgotten as he was referred to as ‘he’ and ‘him’ thereafter – this would have been a very progressive and meaningful part to the show, but was overlooked.

The Hackney Empire’s 20th anniversary panto is indeed memorable, and has an extremely talented cast. However, this very different twist on the classic story and panto structure may not be for everyone.

Reviewed by Laura Evans
Photo: Robert Workman


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