‘What is a panto?’ I asked my companion at the Hackney Empire’s Saturday matinee. ‘It’s basically a really bad play,’ said Coco, aged five and three quarters. She was there with her older brother and my son to help me appreciate the Christmas frolics. Half an hour in, I feigned confusion over the storyline. ‘People are trying to steal the duck,’ she said.
Mother Goose is a parable of wealth and greed set in Hackney-topia where an impoverished family become rich when their champion egg-layer starts to produce bullion instead of breakfast. Menaced by an assortment of harpies and malefactors, they move into a spangly new palace and try to protect their asset from thieving hands. Clive Rowe, playing the title role, has enough charisma to fill Terminal Five and he approaches his annual Hackney gig like a stroll in the park. When a joke falls flat he brings it instantly back to life. ‘You’ve paid your money, ladies and gentlemen, you might as well enjoy yourselves.’ He snuck in a reference to Arthur Miller and added, ‘That’s for the Guardian readers.’ More adult quips like that would have done no harm. A political reference got the show’s biggest cheer. ‘I’ll never vote Ukip!’ said a character in a silly costume to a 12-foot-high vulture. Hackney loved that.
This is a slick, handsome and richly costumed show that boasts some big ensemble numbers with high-kicking chorus lines and soaring melodies belted out by great singers. Beautifully polished and excellent to watch. And it’s fantastic for the performers to practise their West End skills on stage. But it all gets a bit lost on the kiddies who only want to scream, boo and giggle. At half-time I asked my expert for an instant verdict. ‘The badder parts,’ she confided, ‘are at the second part of when they got rich. That was the worst part.’ She meant the climax of Act One, when the paupers moved from the slums into their blinged-up mansion.
She was right. The action sagged at this point and the interval was placed too late. For ten tricky minutes the stalls were squirming and quivering with full-throated tots demanding to be set free. ‘Which character’s your favourite?’ I pestered her, Biro poised for dictation. She declined to reveal her choice and instead delivered a wordless sequence of shrieks, grimaces and ear grabs which I think (but I’m not certain) were an unfavourable review of Susie McKenna’s all-too-scary performance as the black-clad witch, Vanity.
After the show I turned to my focus group for their final judgments. Coco held out a horizontal hand, palm down, and see-sawed it. Her brother, Roman, aged 8, made the same gesture (with a blue pistol awkwardly clasped between thumb and forefinger). My son declared himself equally unimpressed. It’s rather disheartening to find kids of this age maintaining a weary pose of superiority when confronted with a popular art form. They were, I should add, grossly misrepresenting their opinions. I checked regularly and I was cheered by the sight of three shiny and enraptured faces tilted towards the limelight. Next year I’ll take the supercilious ingrates to see The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. That’ll teach them to love panto.
Now that gayness is mainstream its sense of transgression has vanished. Subterranean bars in Soho are no longer secret clubhouses for fraternities of outlaws and sinners whose runes and jargon exclude all but the privileged few. Gay life is completely straight these days and that makes a homoerotic panto like Sleeping Booty! rather hard to sell. ‘It’s absolutely filthy,’ enthused a social media site. Stuart Saint’s script is a pastiche of a kiddies’ horror fable with cheekily named characters. Tit-Bit, Fairy Muff, the Evil Mangelina, Prince Willie Wontie (‘will he won’t he’). The Prince is played by Leon Scott, a gifted clown, who comes clippety-clopping on to the stage with a pink hobby-horse clasped between his knees. He thrusts its velvet nose into the lap of a female spectator. ‘Do you want to pet my pony?’ he leers. How filthy is that? Larry Grayson said saucier things on prime-time television in 1975.
The material isn’t top-notch but the performers are, and the atmosphere sizzles with good-natured merriment. The show’s highlight is a co-ordinated hand-jive of breath-taking ingenuity performed to a rollicking jazz-funk soundtrack. Just when you think it can’t get any faster, the actors repeat it at twice the speed. Amazing to watch. As is the lead thesp, Alice Marshall, in the title role. With supermodel looks and a rib-thin figure, she manages to be erotic and extremely funny at the same time without being effortful or cheesy about it. A natural, in other words. Her performance says ‘put me on TV’ so forcefully that a producer is bound to get the message soon.