Aladdin review – all hail Clive Rowe's terrific Twankey

Writer-director Susie McKenna and composer Steve Edis are celebrating their 20th year of panto at Hackney Empire and have a rep for being one of the best in the land. A huge group in the row in front of us are on their 10th annual trip; the couple behind have attended 15 years on the trot. But for eight-year-old Aggie and five-year-old Hilda this is their first pantomime (not counting the CBeebies one on TV). What are they expecting? “Sweets!” they shout. “Songs!” Anything else? “Men in dresses!”

Aladdin delivers all three, of course. None of us caught a sweet but at least some of the songs are catchy, not least a love duet between Aladdin and Princess Ling-Mai, the daughter of an evil empress. And the man in a dress is none other than Duke from Tracy Beaker (AKA Empire legend Clive Rowe, who played his first Hackney dame back in 1998).

Aggie has been reading a Malory Towers book in which the girls put on a show. “A pantomime never sticks to its story,” says one of the students. “It just does what it likes.” That’s a neat description, which captures both the exhilaration and occasional frustration I feel with the Empire’s Aladdin.

Magisterial … Tony Timberlake as Abanazar with Natasha Lewis as the Genie of the Ring. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

The exhilarations begin with Gaia, the giant, monkey-headed goddess of light who welcomes us. “This is kind of freaky,” mutters Aggie. Next, there’s dastardly Abanazar (Tony Timberlake), whose very eyebrows look evil as he berates the audience for not booing loudly enough: “Is that all you’ve got?” Soon, a beautiful dragon puppet parades up the aisle. “I like pantomimes better than plays,” Aggie quickly decides. What seals the deal for Hilda is that Michael Lin (playing Constable Ackee) resembles Chase from Paw Patrol just enough to merit a quick on-stage rendition of that show’s theme.

A blizzard of rhyming couplets and Lotte Collett’s snazzy sets establish the scene. The government’s in disarray and we are near old Peking in Ha-Ka-Nay, an East End island that exited the Eastern Union. EastEnders’ Tameka Empson is the fearsome empress, there’s no sneezing on a Thursday, and Abanazar bears a remarkable resemblance to Jacob Peas Bogg, a phoney who does dirty deeds. All of which suggests territory ripe for satirical swipes, and there are stark lines here, too, about Windrush. But the ins and outs of Ha-Ka-Nay go underexplored after the opening setup. There will be throwaway Brexit gags in pantos up and down the land this Christmas and too many of these lines don’t sting like they should (“You’ve had more chances than Michael Gove!”).

Michael Lin (Constable Ackee), Tony Whittle (Sergeant Dumplin) and Tameka Empson (The Empress) in Aladdin.

Bubbly fun … Michael Lin (Constable Ackee), Tony Whittle (Sergeant Dumplin) and Tameka Empson (The Empress). Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

There are plenty of local in-jokes amid the more generic panto fodder; one or two sublime comic routines are as well oiled as some of the audience; and the spirit of the whole thing leaves you overlooking the occasionally pitchy singing. Gemma Sutton is an Aladdin who is easy to cheer (“He’s a girl!” says Aggie), Alim Jayda is a super-charismatic Dishi (“What a fittie!” we shout, again and again) and Kat B and Natasha Lewis are genial genies.

But Rowe’s Widow Twankey, queen of the Wash Me Niks laundry, is simply magisterial. “Cooey!’ he cries, taking the stage in a candy-coloured stripy frock, resplendent from washing-basket hat to red high heels. This, you truly feel, is a man who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than centre-stage at the Hackney Empire doing panto. He couldn’t look more at ease, reeling off one-liners as if they’re jokes snatched from exploding Christmas crackers. Prowling the stalls to find a volunteer/victim, you sense his relish – and watch every man in an aisle seat squirm. Happily, this afternoon, Gary from row E is up for a laugh and happy to carry Twankey’s toolbox for some washing machine puns that aren’t entirely squeaky clean.

By the time Gaia wraps it all up – the goddess’s beatific voice belongs to another Empire veteran, Sharon D Clarke – it feels as if we’ve been through a spin cycle ourselves. This is a fresh, bubbly show that may lack a magic carpet ride but makes up for it with a chorus line of pandas whose panda-mime routine was still being performed by my girls at breakfast the morning after.

Aladdin is at the Hackney Empire, London, until 6 January.

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