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Sleeping Beauty hits the Empire

THEY’RE BEHIND YOU: Darren Hart as Ikoboo (photo credit: Bob Workman)

A VICTORIAN landmark built in 1901, the Hackney Empire celebrated its 115th birthday last week and it was fitting that the family of the theatre’s architect Frank Matcham were in the crowd to watch what for years has been recognised as the best pantomime in London.

For almost two decades Susie McKenna has been the envy of panto writers across the country. Year after year she effortlessly intertwines magical panto traditions with modern day socio-political affairs - a formula which last year saw a record 55,000 people pass through the theatre’s doors during the festive period.

This year’s production of Sleeping Beauty is no different. It cannot be disputed that 2016 provided a generous amount of subject matter for McKenna to play with, and the seasoned pro does not disappoint.

Set in the magical land of Hackneytopia, full of fairies, unicorns and dragons, the story follows the coming of age of Princess Tahlia, our feisty heroine who strives to take charge of her own destiny. The classic fairytale gets a real shake up and audience members are given a safe space to reflect on the realities of what most of us can agree has been a very trying year. As we would expect there are nods to both Brexit and Trump’s America as well as the gentrification of the borough in which the theatre stands.

Tones of unity and inclusion are established early on and the line expressing the importance of giving “asylum with a smile” is one example of the gentle moral lessons McKenna weaves through her scripts.

Contrary to the casting efforts of other pantomimes across the city, McKenna has never had to rely on big names to get bums on seats; she simply hires the best and most adept talent for this unique theatre format.

Alexia Khadime who has starred in various West End productions including The Book of Mormon, Les Miserables and Wicked, exudes grace and vivacity as Princess Tahlia. Flipping patriarchy on its head, her feisty performance is a refreshing take on the often docile role of the princess.

Kat B and Darren Hart contribute boundless energy as Denzil the Dragon and Ikaboo (the dark fairy’s servant) respectively. This is Kat’s tenth year starring in McKenna’s panto and his experience shows. His ability to work the audience, both young and old is truly a sign of a consummate performer.

Gavin Spokes is a wonderful Dame. Nanny Nora’s quick witted and innuendo filled banter are a particular treat for the more mature crowd. His playful interaction with the band (a small but talented crew led by musical director Mark Dickman), is an example of the camaraderie between cast, ensemble and musicians.

However without a shadow of a doubt the star of this year’s show is Sharon D Clarke, the formidable, patois speaking, dark fairy - Carabosse. An Olivier award winning actor and stage veteran, Clarke gives the crowd everything they want and more from a panto villain. Her powerful vocals, bad temper and delightfully delivered wisecracks have the audience jeering and cheering in equal measure. She executes the role with such expertise it’s difficult to believe this is her first time playing a panto baddie. Clarke explains what keeps her coming back to panto despite winning numerous accolades for her performances on the West End stage:

“What I love about panto is it’s one of those few mediums where you’re in a theatre and you break the forth wall and you talk directly to the audience.”

The paying public as ever play their part, feeding off of the infectious energy of the cast. While pantomime is known for raucous audience participation, there is certainly something extra special
about a capacity crowd in Hackney.

While those on stage will receive most of the plaudits, the team behind the scenes deserve as much credit. It is a truly seamless production, something Kat B explains is due to the tireless efforts of those we only see at the curtain call.

“It’s nuts,” said Kat.

He continued:

“As much as we’re playing and doing different scenes, we have to respect that these guys have our lives in their hands, but most importantly. Their job is to make us look good.”

The show also provides opportunities for local youngsters to join the professionals on stage; members of the Empire’s Artist Development Programme and the Vestry School of Dance are enlisted for this year’s production. It is phenomenal that a production which reaps national plaudits each year is still able to keep the culture and concerns of the community at its core; but those who have been frequenting Hackney panto for years know that this is the key to McKenna and her team’s continued success.

Only time will tell if this year’s production will reach the same level of success as years gone by, but this spectacular family show is certainly worth a trip East during the festive period.

Sleeping Beauty runs until January 8 and tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 0208 985 2424.

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