What’s a panto without a dame? Hackney Empire’s long-resident one-a-year drag artiste Clive Rowe is getting skirted up over at Wimbledon instead, this year. And so Hackney is embarking on the women-heavy, but famously dame-less story of Cinderella.
In a sense, it’s one of the most beautiful pantos – the fairy godmother, the pumpkin coach and horses providing unrivalled opportunities for unapologetic prettiness. Lotte Collett’s set design drips with glitter, like a vast pop-up Christmas card that’s come to life.
But it’s also full of ugliness, mercilessly pitting its four female leads against each other. Cinderella is put upon by the Ugly Sisters, who are in turn tormented by a mother who’s desperate to get them married off to a rich prince. Each woman in this unhappy compound family is at odds with the others, and they’re all hoping a little sparkling lucre will fall their way, and help them escape this sorry mess. Suzie McKenna’s version amps up the realism by making Cinderella’s dad stony broke, too. In her loosely 1930s setting, he’s an aristo with a crumbling mansion on his hands, hoping that his new wife will bring him the funds he needs to fix the leaky ceiling.
There are ways of dispelling the faintly misogynist funk that hangs over Cinders, like smoke from an ill-designed kitchen chimney. Cinderella’s Midnight Pumpkin, by the reliably thoughtful Kneehigh, made the ‘ugly’ sisters beautiful – dolled up in pretty wigs and platform shoes, and only unattractive for their cruelty. Tom Wells’ Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith got away from the toxic family dynamics by shifting the focus towards a delightfully innocent meet-cute for Cinders and the prince, unfolding on the banks of the Thames.
Hackney Empire’s approach is typically trad, rather than revisionist: with an old-school slice of plot-heavy fairytale nonsense like Mother Goose or Dick Whittington, it works perfectly. With the emotional complexities of Cinderella, it falls down. Particularly when it comes to the laughs: somehow, endless jokes targeted at women’s ugliness in all its forms don’t feel all that festive.
Ugly sisters Victiqua (Kat B) and Queeniqua (Tony Whittle) are arrayed in a succession of angular, lurid gowns – stereotypically coded pictures of ‘vulgar’ working class femininity who’ll never get their prince, and that feel, however quietly, like they’re a quiet admonishment to women who stray from the bland, well-spoken, conformist Kate Middleton ideal. Imagine if someone made Ugly Sisters who wore pashminas and camel coats, and had names like Georgiana or Antoinette…a girl can dream.
Still, Aisha Jawando’s Cinderella is as warm-hearted and bright-eyed as you could wish for, bouncing back after each insult and onto the trail of her prince. Quite why she’s so desperate to bag a man as featureless as this public school Charming (Chris Jenkins) is another question – especially after one of the panto’s few topical jokes outs him for stashing his family’s fortunes in a tax haven. Their romance feels pretty weak, playing second fiddle to her parents’ pretty adorable later-life love story. Peter Straker launches into a memorable cover of Rag’n’Bone Man’s human, reimagining it as the lament of a conflicted father. And Suzie McKenna is pretty wonderful as wicked stepmother with the flair for posing of a latter-day Cruella de Ville.
All the expected joys of a panto are present and correct, if a little muted: a flying coach with winged horse, a somewhat fumbled neon transformation scene, birthday shout-outs, and a shambolic singalong (for the love of god, panto-writers, set your jingles to a tune people know already). Only a hilarious panto horse really sings – or whinnies, rather.
The loveliness of panto is that it’s an artform that’s endlessly forgiving. The plot can make no sense. There can be a chorus of half-drilled, intermittently frightened-looking kids. It can go on for three and half hours without saying anything in particular. That’s all fine, and you’ll have a total ball if – and it’s a big if – you can be persuaded to care about and love the ludicrous, stereotyped characters who’re leading you through this mad and messy tradition. At Hackney’s Cinderella, I couldn’t, quite.
Cinderella is on at Hackney Empire until December 31st. Book tickets here.