I’m going to be honest, I cried audibly at three separate points during the Hackney Empire Pantomime, Dick Whittington and his Cat. I may just be fragile and emotional in the run up to the holidays, but this show may have also briefly tapped into everything that is wrong with the world that I live in, and everything that is right.
In this version of the panto tale, Dick is introduced as a passenger upon the HMS Empire Windrush, which arrived in London from Jamaica in 1948. He is greeted by an opening number from the chorus of Londoners and Windrush Passengers. It’s this perfect panto opening, the busy city, the optimism of those arriving to work, the dancing in the streets. I notice later there’s a double page spread in the programme explaining Windrush and how settlement papers were mismanaged, and the illegal deportations and abuses that followed.
Boom. First tears.
Tarinn Callendar is captivating as the lead, fresh from playing Hercules Mulligan in Hamilton. He’s all leaping energy and optimisim, and calls to the audience ‘Wha’happen London!’ and we respond ‘Wha’happen Dick!’ He and Kat B as the anamorphous ship’s cat, are the highlight of the show, as they duet on ‘London is the place for me’ before being joined by Hackney Panto legend Clive Rowe. Is there anything better than seeing Duke from Tracey Beaker in drag, singing ‘And I’m Telling You’?
I don’t know if it’s because it’s a London panto and I’ve only ever seen them in the West Midlands and Somerset, but I’m really shocked, and then impressed, at how the panto wears its politics on its sleeve. The villain is the queen of rats, with an evil sidekick called Boris, complete with blond wig and grand designs on being prime minister.
My second bout of tears comes when Dick is making his way out of the city having been framed for a crime, then a heavenly voice starts singing ‘Turn again Whittington, Lord Mayor of London’ By the end of the scene, he’s calling “I will become Lord Mayor of London, buy my mother a house, and give Hackney Empire more! Funding!”
I’m crying real tears, not really because of the joy of pantomime, but because it draws such a horrible starkness between what we can imagine and what we can see. I’m imagining a young black man holding the values of kindness and justice and being able to succeed and hold high office, and give generously, and instead, we have ‘Eton and Oxford Tory Wanker but slightly less of an Eton and Tory Wanker than the rest of them’ Rory Stewart campaigning to be Mayor of London and people will take him seriously as somebody who actually cares???!
Throughout this performance, I write down lots of snarky critic notes which kind of feel petty by the end. I mean, there is a weird sub plot with a magic seashell that is then dropped, and the humour feels baggy in places, but THE END.
The whole cast are dancing, wearing east end pearly jackets, before Clive Rowe turns around, and the back spells out ‘We Are London’. The stage managers all come on and take a bow. Then I’m uncontrollably crying. I cry all throughout a mash up of Celebration by Kool and the Gang and One Love by Bob Marley. I’ve welled up every time I’ve thought about it this week.
Panto is fun. I love it as a form. I love that the audience is a part of the show, I love that we pay tribute to our theatrical heritage, I love that its often people’s first exposure to theatre. I love it for giving me a glimpse of what a world could look like if everything were simpler and the people were kinder, and I hate it for the same reason.
Dick Whittington and His Cat is on at Hackney Empire till 5th January. More info here.