In its 120th anniversary year, Hackney Empire is returning to its roots with a highly traditional pantomime. That’s mostly good news for the kids. All the favourite flourishes are here: sweets are thrown into the crowd; there’s a skit with a water pistol, plenty of patter with the audience, and a downright charming panto cow. There’s significantly less for the adults, though, with very few political references (despite a cancelled Christmas plotline that screams Covid) and a PG-rated script with barely a hint of sexual innuendo.
Writer Will Brenton is best known for penning children’s TV show Tweenies and there’s a whiff of CBeebies to Cleo Pettitt’s pastel-coloured cut-out set and the ensemble’s beamingly innocent performances, including a bubblegum bright Jill (Ellie Ruiz Rodriguez) and a suitably strait-laced but plucky Jack (Rochelle Sherona). Even the baddies aren’t in the slightest bit scary. Boo. Hiss.
It’s down to Clive Rowe to add a bit of bite to proceedings. Rowe has become a panto institution in Hackney and he stars and directs alongside Tony Whittle. Donning a series of delightfully absurd dresses, Rowe plays Jack and Jill’s mum Dame Trot and soon has the audience purring with pleasure. There’s a running gag in which an audience member has to jump up and declare his love for Dame Trot and, with Rowe on such great form, it doesn’t feel too much of a stretch.
Then there’s his singing voice, which is as rich and controlled as ever. Steven Edis’s songs don’t really stretch Rowe but there’s one borrowed number – a thoroughly silly take on The Twelve Days of Christmas – which contains a dizzying deluge of custard-pie splats and whips the audience into a thoroughly festive frenzy.
• Jack and the Beanstalk is at Hackney Empire, London, until 2 January.