Jack and the Beanstalk at the Hackney Empire
It’s that time of year again, when writers, designers and B-List celebrities attempt to out-camp, out-ham and otherwise outdo each other. It can only mean one thing, boys and girls: panto season. For the last decade, the venerable Hackney Empire’s foray into the slapstick and innuendo-laden world of pantomime has been under the stewardship of writer Susie Mckenna. This year, McKenna has set her sights on high-profile topics including climate change, the labour leadership and Boris Johnson (who, many might agree, wouldn’t look out of place in a panto himself) in her take on panto classic Jack and the Beanstalk.
Riding high on a string of successful shows (most recently a widely applauded rehash of genre staple Mother Goose), McKenna and lead designer Lotte Collett waste no time in introducing us to the vibrantly costumed land that Jack (Debbie Kurup) and pals inhabit. Introduced through exposition from rundown Mother Nature (Julia Sutton) and cameos by journalists Robert Peston and Jon Snow (who “knows nothing”), the audience discover that the once beautiful land of Hackney Dale has been plunged into perpetual winter by the evil giant Blunderbore (voiced by Matthew Kelly). Now, the rest of this well-trodden tale is well known, but it’s rare that a panto is judged solely on its story (which is helpful, as McKenna’s tale is a jumbled affair). Indeed, a good pantomime will offer something to both kids and their parents. A great pantomime will do this whilst also managing to balance slapstick and buffoonery with innuendo and subtlety, to the point where the whole affair becomes enjoyably exhausting.
So, how does McKenna’s newest offering stack up? Sadly, not as well as it could. Undoubtedly, the cast do a brilliant job of maintaining frantic levels of energy; stage veteran, and Olivier award winner, Clive Rowe puts in a fabulously lewd turn as Dame Daisy (you will never consider a selfie stick in the same light again). Also of note are Kat B and Darren Hart (both returning to Hackney for panto season), playing Snowman and Clumsy Colin, who engage with the younger members of the audience through slapstick and larger-than-life characterisation. However, the show never becomes more than the sum of its parts; the pacing feels disjointed and the topical references not quite funny enough to break character for. “But this is some of McKenna’s best work!” you may cry. Oh no it isn’t.
Jack and the Beanstalk is on at the Hackney Empire from 21st November 2015 until 3rd January 2016, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Jack and the Beanstalk here: