Clive Rowe as Mother Goose and Kat B as Billy Goose in Mother Goose at Hackney Empire. Photograph: Robert Workman
Clive Rowe as Mother Goose and Kat B as Billy Goose in Mother Goose at Hackney Empire. Photograph: Robert Workman

There’s a homecoming atmosphere to the Hackney Empire pantomime this year, with Clive Rowe and Sharon D. Clarke returning after a break from the annual giggle-fest.

Rowe is regarded as one of the best dames in the business, making the title role in Mother Goose the perfect vehicle for his talents – it being the only pantomime with the dame at the centre of the tale. Set in Hackneytopia, it’s a more-complex-than-average plot featuring two warring witches who become pitched in a Faust-like battle for Mother Goose’s soul.

A gold egg-laying goose sent to help Mother Goose only makes her “money mad”, and so a morality tale begins. Plot aside though, this is a comic caper at its core. The jokes are laid on thickly, with dancing skeletons, a rowdy kitchen scene with smashed plates, innuendo for the grown ups and one-liners aplenty.

A huge vulture even makes a cameo for the sake of a topical gag. Rowe meanwhile is back to his boisterous best: bursting out of a pie, cheekily flirting with a terrified member of the audience, quick witted when ad-libbing and quicker still with the multiple costume changes. Writer and director Susie McKenna is wicked witch Vanity, though her high-pitched Grotbags impression is no match for Sharon D. Clarke’s effortlessly cool good witch Charity.

Even hardened panto cynics would struggle to fault Clarke’s singing, from her sultry rendition of ‘I’m Every Woman’, to duetting with Rowe on Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’, which had the audience in the aisles. Hats off to Stephen Edis’s score then, which eschews soppy ballads in favour of soul classics, balanced with chart toppers such as ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen.

Clarke and Rowe may steal the show, but there are fine turns from supporting characters. Kat B as Billy Goose is the most likeable of unlikely romantic heroes, and green haired henchman Frightening Freddie (Darren Hart) received perhaps the greatest compliment of all: the character’s trademark yelp could be heard long after the curtain went down while the audience filtered out – the sign of an enjoyable night.

Mother Goose is at Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street, E8 1EJ until 4 January
www.hackneyempire.co.uk

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