Clive Rowe on play­ing the Dame in Hack­ney Em­pire’s 20th pan­tomime

With the panto sea­son al­most here (oh yes it is!), ac­tor Clive Rowe and di­rec­tor Susie McKenna talk about bring­ing some com­mu­nity spirit to Hack­ney Em­pire this Christ­mas with Aladdin

The Wharf - - Change The Word - Florence Der­rick

If you don’t find a 20-stone black man in a frock funny, don’t come, says ac­tor Clive Owen. “Be­cause that’s what you’re go­ing to get.” We’d met for a tea break dur­ing week one of re­hearsals at the Hack­ney Em­pire, where Clive is play­ing the dame – Widow Twankey – in Aladdin, the theatre’s 20th pan­tomime.

Though he wasn’t dressed in his frock, the joy and Christ­mas spirit of the panto was al­ready pal­pa­ble where we sat just out­side of the re­hearsal room.

The cast was learn­ing the orig­i­nal songs writ­ten by Steven Edis and al­ready belt­ing them out with con­fi­dence.

The Em­pire’s lat­est sea­sonal pro­duc­tion has nos­tal­gic sig­nif­i­cance for Clive, who has been work­ing with writer and di­rec­tor Susie McKenna since the 1980s.

They met on the set of Aladdin at the Not­ting­ham Play­house where Susie was play­ing the tit­u­lar ne’er-do well and Clive was Widow Twankey.

“That was my first dame role – I’m go­ing back to my orig­i­nal dame,” said Clive.

“In some ways it was ter­ri­fy­ing for me. It was a new medium.”

But Clive was hooked. Al­though his ca­reer has taken him from an Olivier Award-win­ning West End per­for­mance in Guys And Dolls to a TV role in The Story Of Tracey

Beaker and, re­cently, the role of Cuisinier in the Beauty And The

Beast film adap­ta­tion, Clive has re­turned to panto time and time again to cel­e­brate Christ­mas as a dame. For di­rec­tor and writer Susie,

Aladdin has cropped up at cru­cial mo­ments over the years since she first acted with Clive.

The first panto she di­rected was in 1994 at Hack­ney Em­pire – and she’s put on 20 there since, re­open­ing the re­fur­bished theatre after a £22 mil­lion cash in­jec­tion with Aladdin, star­ring Clive, in 2004.

Her pro­duc­tions can be thanked for not just se­cur­ing the theatre’s high rep­u­ta­tion, but per­haps even for its sur­vival.

“When I put on my first pan­tomime there, it was hard,” she said.

“Hack­ney Em­pire had no money and it wasn’t the es­tab­lished theatre that it is now. We were start­ing from scratch, lit­er­ally driv­ing a truck around and pick­ing up old bits of set that other di­rec­tors didn’t want any more, re­ly­ing on their gen­eros­ity.

“I was lucky ac­tors like Clive agreed to come with me on this jour­ney.

“It grew. After the re­furb, the rest is his­tory – the posh news­pa­pers started notic­ing us and that was what we needed to get a Lon­don-wide pro­file.

“It helped put us on the map and changed the for­tunes of the theatre.

“The sta­bil­ity of the pan­tomime, touch wood, and the growth that it had re­ally did com­pen­sate for a lot of the lack of fund­ing Hack­ney Em­pire had and still has to this day.”

Though it might seem like some­thing of a Christ­mas mir­a­cle, it’s an in­dus­try stan­dard that pan­tos and Christ­mas pro­duc­tions pro­vide much of a theatre’s yearly fi­nances.

“Fund­ing has been mas­sively cut and nine times out of 10, ev­ery theatre re­lies on their Christ­mas show to boost the rest of the year,” said Susie.

“As we’ve grown, there’s not a post­code that doesn’t come to our pan­tomimes.

“But we’ve also been lucky to have a loyal lo­cal au­di­ence who are amaz­ing.”

It’s the com­mu­nity spirit of Hack­ney Em­pire’s pro­duc­tions that have al­lowed it to thrive. Susie’s pro­duc­tions reach out to the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion in cast and theme, aim­ing to nod to cur­rent af­fairs and re­lay a mes­sage with­out com­ing across overly se­ri­ous.

“The ma­jor­ity of young school­child­ren who come may never have been in a theatre be­fore, but there are some adults who have never been in a theatre be­fore ei­ther,” Susie said.

“For a lot of peo­ple, pan­tomime is their first taste of theatre, so there’s a great re­spon­si­bil­ity to do it well.

“Any gen­er­a­tion can en­joy a panto at Hack­ney Em­pire. The aim is for it to be lay­ered enough that kids don’t get bored, there’s noth­ing rude or blue in it, it’s safe for peo­ple to come.

“And I think that means a lot to peo­ple from other cul­tures as well.

“We have a very di­verse cast that re­flects Hack­ney and Lon­don. It cel­e­brates com­mu­nity in a way the big­ger com­mer­cial the­atres don’t.

“All our shows are set in Hack­ney, whether or not it’s a de­riv­a­tive. This pro­duc­tion has all the tra­di­tional story – the wicked un­cle, the boy dream­ing and wish­ing on a lamp – but it’s set in Ha Ka Ney, which is an Eastern is­land that’s sep­a­rated years ago from an Eastern Union and is poor as hell.

“Yes, that’s a nod to Brexit. I don’t care, I wear my pol­i­tics on my sleeve. But Hack­ney is a po­lit­i­cal place and al­ways has been.

“So we have fun. What we try not to do is preach. And we all need a laugh at the mo­ment, don’t we?”

Clive shares Susie’s ap­proach, de­scrib­ing, too, the cre­ative chal­lenges in per­form­ing to a mixed crowd. “I love per­form­ing to fam­i­lies. I don’t un­der­stand the idea that pan­tomime is a lesser form of theatre, for chil­dren,” he said.

“It’s more chal­leng­ing than other types of per­for­mances. You’ve got to sing, dance and act – that’s al­ready three things in one.

“There’s also some­thing quite beau­ti­ful about land­ing some­thing that a child will get on one level and an adult will un­der­stand on a com­pletely dif­fer­ent level. That’s an art. The thing about pan­tomime struc­ture is that each tier of per­former has an age range that they’re cater­ing to. The dame gets to smudge be­tween all of them.

“I’m there for the kids but I’m also very much there for the adults. For a kids’ mati­nee, I back off be­cause they’re not in­ter­ested in the kinds of jokes and pace that my char­ac­ter has.

“But in the evening I put the pedal down a bit stronger be­cause I know the adults will get what I’m do­ing.

“That’s very rare in theatre. You nor­mally have a role, you play it, you get off stage. But for me, all the time I’m judg­ing the au­di­ence. I call it or­gan­ised chaos.

“I’m al­lowed to do ev­ery­thing ex­cept swear or be vul­gar – if you’re in an en­vi­ron­ment that you’re putting a fam­ily in, you should do a fam­ily show.”

That’s Susie’s goal, in cre­at­ing a plat­form to in­spire the chil­dren who come.

“We say to kids, do you know what? You can do bet­ter than the adults, ac­tu­ally,” she said.

“You can have a dream. And it’s fine to say you love some­one. At the mo­ment, it seems that it’s cool to be cyn­i­cal and not care.

“I think that’s a slip­pery slope, es­pe­cially with the way pol­i­tics are go­ing at the mo­ment. So this pan­tomime is about car­ing.

“I don’t kill off any char­ac­ters in my pan­tomimes, ei­ther. We have enough kids killing each other on the streets, thanks. We don’t need to glo­rify that. There’s al­ways a bet­ter way.”

For Susie, there’s noth­ing more heart­warm­ing than the sounds of school­child­ren singing along. “It’s the sweet­est thing.

“You’ll hear a thou­sand lit­tle voices get­ting louder and louder and more con­fi­dent. It’s re­ally mov­ing.” Clive thrives off that too. “The au­di­ence is a beast, and you con­trol it on a wing and a prayer,” he said, laugh­ing at how rau­cous and in­ter­ac­tive the per­for­mances get.

“You come out on stage and within the first 20 min­utes you know what kind of au­di­ence you’re deal­ing with and what they want.

“But ul­ti­mately, you’re per­form­ing to the five-to-10-year-olds. If they’ve not un­der­stood your story, you’ve failed. Have fun with the au­di­ence, but al­ways re­turn to that wide-eyed child.” Go to hack­eyem­pire.co.uk for more in­for­ma­tion and to book tick­ets (from £10-£38, Novem­ber 24 to Jan­uary 6)

Aladdin di­rec­tor Susie McKenna

Ac­tor Clive Rowe

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