Review: Jack and the Beanstalk, Hackney Empire

“He said, I’ve bought you a selfie stick. I said, do I have to do everything myself?”

I haven’t booked much Christmas-themed theatre this year in an attempt to try and reclaim a bit of a social life but also because I do find it quite hard to write reviews about pantomimes. By and large I’ve been quite lucky in the few I’ve been to in recent years, sticking to the venues who know what they’re doing (Hackney Empire, Lyric Hammersmith, New Wimbledon) but even with this logic, my fingers were burnt a little with this year’s first festive foray.

Marking Susie McKenna’s 17th panto for the Hackney Empire, Jack and the Beanstalk is a raucous, rambling affair indeed, but one blessed with the return of Clive Rowe as the Dame, the actor famed at the only one to win an Olivier for panto. And I have to say that the audience around us were largely loving the whole thing which is kind of the whole point, even if you’re bribing the kids with handfuls of free sweets (it’s only like giving critics drinks vouchers for the interval ;-))

For me though, I was a tad disappointed. McKenna’s revamping of the plot riffs inordinately off of the original story to a perplexing degree, the sheer number of subplots give a very disjointed feel especially early on, and the eco-friendly message that ought to resonate strongest feels shoehorned in at the end. The contemporary references and jokes also don’t quite feel the sharpest, making the show feel quite laboured especially with this running time.

The over-complicatedness seems baffling when you have such talent as Rowe onstage, an old hand at milking the humour for all age groups. Likewise Kat B’s and Darren Hart good double act and Jocelyn Jee Esien and Tony Timberlake’s boo-hiss bad double act are at their best when working the eager audience. Debbie Kurup’s Jack is a strangely drawn hero though, not really a strong presence in the story and consequently overacted (if there can be such a thing in panto) though her singing voice remains impeccable.

So not the strongest of starts for my festive season and possibly something of a disappointment for the Hackney Empire. Now altogether now, ‘oh no it isn’t’…

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 3rd January

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