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Mother Goose

by on 4 December 2022

Take a Gander

Mother Goose 

by Will Brenton

Hackney Empire Productions at the Hackney Empire until 31st December

Review by Quentin Weiver

When music hall impresario, Oswald Stoll commissioned the design of the Hackney Empire Palace, he wanted the most beautiful theatre in the world, a theatre to open the new Twentieth Century as the best ever, so he turned to the incomparable architect Frank Matcham.  Notwithstanding the London Coliseum or Richmond Theatre, other Matcham masterpieces, it remains an impeccable example of its kind.  Opened in 1901, it rapidly gained fame as a music hall, attracting well-known names such as Charlie Chaplin or Stan Laurel.

Pantomime had recently become a staple of the music hall, and pantomime had widened its appeal by featuring popular music hall stars.  But Stoll wanted the best pantomime performers, and for the Hackney Empire’s first panto in 1902 he signed up Dan Leno, the Dame of Drury Lane who had been wowing Christmas panto audiences there since 1888. 

That first Hackney Empire panto was Mother Goose.  Five-foot nothing, a champion clog dancer and lauded music-hall performer, it was Dan Leno who created to concept of the Dame as we know it today.  With exemplary physicality he would herd donkeys and wrestle with live geese as part of his routine. 

In celebration of the panto’s 120th anniversary in the theatre, the Hackney Empire brings Mother Goose to the stage again this year.  The Leno role (minus live geese) is played by Clive Rowe, who also directs the show.  This is his fifteenth Hackney Empire pantomime and his fourth Mother Goose.  Rowe is a consummate Dame.  His performance, balancing stumpetish stridency with almost dainty dexterity, is masterful.  He is generous to his fellow cast, although powering the (considerable) action.

This Mother Goose, however, is very much 21st Century.  We are in Hackneywood, where dreams become films and films become dreams.  Mother Goose runs a beauty salon to primp and preen the wannabe stars, who are obsessed with celebrity (a fixation now it seems even with royal princes!)  She is too kind-hearted though and the salon is not making money.  Then her beloved pet goose, Priscilla starts laying golden eggs, and Mother Goose has to make awkward choices.

The baddies are equally 21st Century, as the Demon Queen plots to make everyone in Hackneywood a social media drone, zombifed by their mobiles.   Rebecca Parker plays a gorgeously ghastly Demon Queen, the villain with everyone in thrall to their phones, not only extracting the dark humour of the part, but striking a resonant chord as she cackles how social media has enslaved everyone.  It’s not often that you hear shouts of “hear-hear” amongst the boos.  Meanwhile, Tony Marshall’s somewhat batty Squire Purchase, the landlord, is checking tenants’ credit ratings as he tries to evict them.

As Mother Goose’s BFF (Best Feathered Friend), Priscilla, Ruth Lynch has a honking good time, supported by Gemma Wardle’s frisky Fairy Fame and Kat B’s endearing Billy Goose.  Meanwhile the charming romantic sub-plot between Jack and Jill (Ope Sowande and Holly Mallett) gives a brief respite from all the panto shenanigans. 

A potpourri from the historic catalogue of Hackney Empire’s myriad shows, which had included acts as diverse as Houdini to Louis Armstrong, and of course featured the queen of music hall, Marie Lloyd, make an interesting entr’acte.

Mother Goose is very much a panto for the Dame, and dames need extravaganza costumes.  Ten totally over the top costumes, created by Cleo Pettitt, include an indulgent wonder, a recreation of the Hackney Empire theatre … with stage door derrière.

Steven Edis’s original songs, many richly sung by Rowe who had a musical theatre background, add to the music-scape of Renell Shaw, the show’s musical director.

Mother Goose may have modern trappings, but it is a traditional panto with all the gags developed in those 120 years.  So, fly if you want to get the action, as people are flocking to see it.

Quentin Weiver, March 2022

Photography by Manuel Harlan  

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