Review – Dick Whittington and his cat, Hackney Empire

Sunday 23 December 2007

Like everything Christmas-related, it’s easy to overdo panto; one more spoonful of sprouts, the second bowl of trifle; the 87th coloured tinsel on the Christmas Tree. Dick Whittington at the Hackney Empire was the Whingers’ third panto and to be honest, they were getting a bit over-tired and fractious.

Worse still, Phil had come down with an extreme case of man flu and only dragged himself down to the Hackney Empire because he was the one who had the tickets.

Now the Hackney Empire is a wonderful theatre and has many endearing qualities but these are easily outweighed by the fact that it is in Hackney. Or to be more specific, that it requires reaching it through transportation offered by the North London Line. Grudgingly offered.

This surely is the most miserable part of the London transport network. Three cars per train. Unreliable. Down at heel. Overcrowded.

And it’s curiously difficult to tell from the train which station you’re at. It’s almost as though places such as Canonbury and Dalston Kingsland were embarrassed to be on the North London Line and try not to publicise it too much.

Ken took it over and last month and re-branded it “London Overground” and it will form part of a “near orbital” route which will allow passengers to travel from Richmond to West Croydon. Via Hampstead Heath.

Anyway, Hackney Empire wasn’t going to come to the Whingers so the Whingers had to go to the Hackney Empire for what the critics assured us is London’s panto of the year.

It started promisingly, Phil having secured some rather curious seats at the back of the stalls which have little tables rather like – one imagines – a bingo hall (If Andrew bothered to read his £3 programme rather than just do the kids games which seem the requisite of panto programmes these days he’d realise it was in fact once a bingo hall). Very near the bar, too, and it would have made a marvellous surface for sitting wine-glasses upon. But Phil was so ill, the idea of alcohol made him queasy and Andrew took one look at Phil’s ill-humour and didn’t dare have one in case a quasi-“dog in a manger” situation reared its head.

Moods were not enhanced by the presence of many children at the 1pm Saturday matinee although they turned out to be considerably better behaved than the adults at the next table who talked through most of it.

To be frank, the Whingers don’t agree with the critics at all on this one and we can’t be bothered to say much about it. Gardner and Mountford must be made of sterner stuff than the Whingers. The first act alone was 90 minutes long – about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be. There were far too many different shouting-out requirements – for Idle Jack, for Sara, for Jack, for Alice – so many that Andrew couldn’t remember them all and kept calling out the wrong names.

Some of it was inaudible, particularly Tameka (Beautiful Thing, 3 Non Blondes) Empson’s Fairy Bowbells, despite the programme notes boasting of the Hackney Empire’s “stunning acoustics”.

And then there were the innumerable songs, most of which brought the action juddering to a halt. Only Clive Rowe‘s delicious rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls provoked any interest from the Whingers.

Ah, Clive Rowe. Is he officially a national treasure yet? He should be. Without him this panto would have been a complete washout. He’s absolutely at home in the pantomime dame role – genuinely funny and very self-assured in his ad-libbing. And, of course, he can sing like no-one else.

But really, no-one else made much impression apart from David Ashley (who was apparently in a commercial for Cadbury Roses) as King Rat – excellent, commanding and very scary judging by the child that was so terrified that her father had to carry her to the back of the stalls so that she could scream hysterically next to the Whingers.

Undoubtedly Dick Whittington is a better panto than the one we saw and certainly it is vastly superior to the Barbican’s effort.

But, for our money, there is only one panto in town this Christmas and it’s Cinderella at the Old Vic.


  • Bless. Dick started a blog but it has only one entry and hasn’t been updated since 1st October. Lightweight.
  • The programme (£3) comes with a set of coloured crayons as it’s interactive (join the dots and so on). This was unfortunate as Phil’s specialist is very strict on the matter of Phil being given access to yellow crayons.

5 Responses to “Review – Dick Whittington and his cat, Hackney Empire”

  1. I agree that the first act is overlong, but much preferred this to Fry’s self-congratulatory fest at the Old Vic. Perhaps I was just better off being up front when I went, but I didn’t have a problem with Tameka Empson’s Fairy, and got some extra delight when my colleague recognised her from her performance in The Blacks. It was also nice to see Hannah Jane Fox (or whatever her last name is…learn to hand out bloody cast lists) back on stage recovered from WWRY.

    And can one ever really have too many call backs at panto? The Barbican was far too short on them, and Fry should (and could) have done better than “CAKE!”. Fry also seemed to skimp on the audience song – the Barbican number was catchy, but nothing yet has beaten the Cool Cat Chat – maybe a trip to Birmingham next month will prove otherwise.

  2. Thanks RZ. Interesting but misguided (i.e. wrong).

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    There were too many call backs. We couldn’t get the hang of the “Wake Up, Jack” and “Someone’s got their hands on your patties” ones, and the cast kept berating us for not doing our jobs. But, seriously, two is my max, and these were too long.

    I note you neglected to put in a good word for Puss, who definitely was making sure that the ladieeez in the audience were having their tastes catered to (King Rat wasn’t too bad either but not every woman appreciates a man in purple and green glitter eyeshadow the way I do). I imagine Puss was out recruiting children into the ranks of Furry Fandom at the same time. Crazy to think what all of this youthful exposure to cross dressing and people dressed as animals does to the English mind.

    That said I had a good time at this show but I didn’t start out by seeing the Stephen Frye show! You’ll have to let your expectations build gradually so that you can remember that this was a “good” panto (not excellent, it’s too much to expect) and then have Cinderella out there in the stratosphere of The Panto I Saw Wot Waz Truly Amazing for historical reference.

  4. Simone Says:

    This is my first panto and since I live in Hackney it was not a difficult choice to make. I truly enjoyed it and will make sure that I will see at least 1 panto each year.

  5. Tony Glazier Says:

    Times have moved on and now I was lucky enough to see Dick Wittington at the Hackney Empire at the first night of the 2012 performance.

    Last time I saw this show was more years ago than I care to admit and then the London skyline was typified by Big Ben and red buses! Now its the London Eye, the Gurkin and The Shard!

    It is lavishly produced with many different sets all seamlessly changed in two or three seconds of lights down. Almost all of the theatre’s facilities are used with flying performers and a large ship which sinks in a storm!

    The music is performed by five musicians playing eight instruments. I would have liked a bit more saxophone music too and I would also have given it a little more prominence in the mixing. The pianist ( musical director ) gave a lively display and at times looked likely to eject himself onto the stage!

    The dialogue is very child friendly with no lewd adult jokes at all. Rather less Hackney/London specific lines though. There could easily have been more. Not even a single direct reference to Ken or Boris by name!

    The cast were all very good and the show was very well rehearsed and the sound was good too. Although I was watching the evening performance and it might have fallen apart during the matinee for all I know.

    One of the best sets was the underwater ballet scene. Very well designed and for a few minutes you could have been at Covent Garden! I rather expected some U/V fluoresced fishes at the beginning but perhaps they will add that later when they have sussed out how to effect them.

    The music and songs were very enjoyable although I missed a Titanic theme when the ship was sinking and a song from the bows in that iconic scene which could still be added!

    All in all a very enjoyable show that is bound to be a big success for the Empire!

    Tony Glazier

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