Pantomime in London - It's Behind You!

The big question, for those lucky enough to be able to over-indulge at this time of year, is what is the antidote to holiday heartburn eating. After a selfless submission to the festive ordeal, something needs to be done.

And the salvation is there, in the form of a trip to the pantomime, a trip most needed this year after the underwhelming experience of Downton on Christmas Day. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one who disappeared near the end of the show, only to return at credits time to hear the proclamation “Matthew is dead”, to which the riposte could only be “Well, they had to do something to liven it up”.

I digress. Pantomime in London is not a centre of town thing, my only recollection of a recent exception being Sir Ian McKellen playing Widow Twankey at the Old Vic in the mid 2000s. For Christmas theatrical inspiration we usually look inwards to the West End, for example perhaps to take in The Lion King before it ends its 85 year run.

For professional panto proper, we have to turn around and get on the radar the productions running orbitally around London, this year at, say, Greenwich (Robin Hood), Wimbledon (Snow White), Watford (Mother Goose).....and Hackney.

I recall panto, as a pubescent lad living on the Isle of Thanet, where a trip to the Granville Theatre Ramsgate provoked delirious and unrealistic thoughts surrounding the female lead that would best not be aired in public.

Latterly panto became an essential family ritual for Christmas, beloved of my children, and fondly enjoyed by a delightful elderly relative who would snooze through the action and wake up to applaud vigorously at the appropriate moment.

Pantomime in Hackney, or more specifically at the Hackney Empire, is a delight.

The Empire rules

Even before we get to the show, there is the theatre. And on what was my first visit, it must have provoked alarmed looks from nearby as I exclaimed in the most geeky London guide tones: “Yes of course, this is another Frank Matcham!”

Indeed it is. The great theatre architect, designer of amongst other houses the London Coliseum and the London Palladium (see The London Coliseum - Bonkers but Brilliant for a report on a visit to the former in the summer) was responsible for the construction of this venue in 1901 and in what was claimed was a 38 week building period.

There is a wow factor just sitting down in the seats and admiring the ornate interior, even where attention from some adults is primarily focussed on preventing offspring from spilling their ice cream down the neck of the woman in front.

Definitely Ornate

And although this is venturing into PC territory, there was a wonderful culturally inclusive feeling – kids old and young just having a damn good time.

So, in an auditorium that has been graced by Charlie Chaplin, Marie Lloyd and, it is claimed, Louis Armstrong, we were treated to Dick Whittington and his Cat, performed by a "celebrity"-free cast with gusto and affection.

This is not a full review of the production, so no running through the cast list. But Kat B was an inspirational King Rat, switching accents seamlessly from bad man street lord through Lennie Henry nice guy (think Lord of the Rings Gollum and Smeagol), and then into a frighteningly accurate Boris Johnson.

Physical features of the theatre pointed out by the programme notes include a marble bench in the foyer that was a gift from the Shah of Persia to Queen Victoria....

The Bench

...and an ocular in the roof, described as an air conditioning system in that it can open to let out hot air.

The Ocular

Historians can of course quibble on a description of Richard Whittington as Lord Mayor of London (the “Lord” tag not having evolved by custom when the real man first took office), but if that fact had been pointed out on stage then the know-all would justifiably have been rewarded with a custard pie in the face.

The theatre claims over 100,000 people attending shows there over the year. But the loud cheers after the suggestion that Dick could give some of his fortune to the Hackney Empire indicate that all continued support for the venue would be welcome.

Dick Whittington and his Cat runs until 6 January. If the theatre is within striking distance of you and you fancy a good time away from thoughts of yet deeper spending cuts in 2013, then give it a go.

The author is a City of London and City of Westminster Guide, who runs walking tours in the City and in Westminster. See tabs for further details.

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