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In praise of the great dame

Even a half-decent pantomime such as this can work magic on its audience

<strong>Mother Goose</st

They say children are the toughest critics. Not while I am in the house, they're not. Over the past ten years the Hackney Empire in east London has made a name for itself with "traditional" pantos fashioned for its theatre-resistant, economically stretched, multicultural community. Well, I thought its Mother Goose this year was over-long and under-rehearsed, over-reliant on pop songs and a bit short on laughs. Happily, the two children I brought disagreed. They liked it all, especially the singing, although the older girl did say: "If there was a worst bit, it would be when the cast forgot their lines."

It wasn't for me to lecture her and say that forgetting lines is a panto tradition, like the Wicked Witch entering from the right and the Fairy Godmother from the left (dates from the mystery plays, you know). At the matinée we attended, the drying up and corpsing were at their most obvious in the plate-smashing scene - the one where the clowns are entrusted with washing and stacking plates. The joke, as refined by generations of performers, is not how many plates get smashed but how few, because breaking plates is hard to do. After a long scene in which his crockery kept bouncing, Leslie Crowther got a huge laugh in Aladdin at the London Palladium in 1970 when Alfred Marks accused him of breaking the plates. "Yes," he agreed. "Eventually."

Now that was a great panto (Terry Scott and Basil Brush, too), even if Cilla Black, the principal boy (dear, dead tradition), never replied to my little sister's fan letter. Others would say that its reliance on TV stars was sacrilege. This was certainly the era when Aladdin might be granted three wishes and the first would be to see the Bachelors perform. But casting stars in pantos has been happening since music hall, Marie Lloyd and Little Titch. Indeed, the modern panto dame was invented by Dan Leno, the so-called "king's jester", who died at the age of 43, insane either from the burden or syphilis.

The point is rather that with the disappearance of Variety from television, panto is our only remaining music hall and it fits some performers like nothing else. Bobby Davro may have been a TV star once, but he was never as funny on telly as he was in the New Wimbledon Theatre panto last year - as Muddles in Snow White. In Scotland, Stanley Baxter was almost better known for his panto dames than for his ITV shows. That said, you don't have to be famous to be a great Widow Twanky. Gracing Buxton Opera House most years in corsets and giant bosom is Stirling Rodger, one of the funniest dames around.

The Empire's great dame is Clive Rowe, extremely famous to children because he is the children's home chef in Tracy Beaker. He took a little time to warm up at the matinée we attended, perhaps restrained by health and safety regulations that prevented him chucking sweets at the audience from the stage.

Rowe's Mother Goose was, of course, black, which is certainly nothing new to Hackneytopia - as the borough becomes in pantoland. So was Silly Billy (Kat B, an MTV presenter) and Frightening Freda, the excellent Tameka Empson, who ended every sentence with "innit". Freda talked tough but still ended up with the wimpish, egotistical Prince Jack, her "little Caucasian ragamuffin", played by Matt Dempsey as a slightly less creepy version of Jimmy Carr. Beneath the bawdy lay a little message of integration across class and race (most varieties of both being visible in the audience).

The writer-director is Susie McKenna, an associate director at the Empire, who put on her first pantomime here ten years ago. She also played Vanity, the Wicked Witch - and you could say her part was aptly named because, at times, her direction was so self-indulgent it looked like a vanity project.

But this is me being paid to be critical. If you pay for your tickets, you'll make sure you have fun and the magic will soon seep in. At the end, Vanity needed to be rehabilitated, and in these days when social services stand accused of betraying our young, there was only one way to do that: have the Good Fairy turn her back into a child and bring her up all over again. What a trick that would be! And yet it is one that every half-decent pantomime performs, transforming the harassed mums, cynical teenagers and boozed-up dads back, for a few precious hours, into children.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech