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Friday, 13 December 2019

Dick Whittington and his Cat (Hackney Empire) - Review

Image result for hackney empire panto 2019

When Is It On?

This production of Dick Whittington and his Cat is running at the Hackney Empire until January 5th

Who Made It?

This production was written and directed by Susie McKenna, who has been behind every Hackney Empire pantomime since 1998. She is assisted by several regular collaborators, including songwriter Steven Edis, musical director Mark Dickman and designer Lotte Collett.

What’s it About?

In the aftermath of World War 2, the Empire Windrush arrives in London full of immigrants seeking a new life in the city. One of these is Dick Whittington (played by Tarinn Callender). He reunited with his mother, Dame Sarah (played by Clive Rowe) and finds a job in a shop ran by Alderman Firzwarren (played by Tony Whittle) and his feisty daughter Alice (played by Christina Tedders). Our hero is aided by the Fairy Bowbells (played by Sue Kelvin), who supports in in various ways, including turning his pet cat into an energetic half-human, half-feline called Uncle Vincent (played by Kat B).Unfortunately for Dick, he also attracts the unwanted attention of the villainous Queen Rat (played by Annette McLaughlin), who cooks up several schemes to ensure Dick won’t foil her plans to take over London.


(Note: This review contains spoilers. The formulaic nature of pantomimes (or pantos for short)  is part of their appeal, but the reveal of key comedy and action scenes could be seen as spoilerific for those who want to see these fresh)

Since 1998, the Hackney Empire pantomime has become a major Christmas event in London’s East End. The prolific writer/director Susie McKenna has consistently produced pantomimes which combine the traditional wacky formula of songs and slapstick with creative updates and strong messages. Her latest production is a new take on the classic British panto Dick Whittington, which turns the real life story of a medieval London mayor into a fairytale about a young man who finds fame, fortune and love in the city. McKenna puts a unique spin on the familiar story, following most of the traditional beats whilst keeping things fresh, engaging and comedic. The 2019 production of Dick Whittington and his Cat represents another excellent pantomime from McKenna and her team.

No-one goes to a panto for the story, but there is just enough to provide focus and coherence here. The big selling point of this production is the Post-War setting, with Dick being one of the Carribean immigrants who arrived in Britain on the Windrush after the war. According to the programs, this twist was inspired by the story of Sam King, a Windrush immigrant who eventually became Lord Mayor Of Southwark. However, anyone who wants a detailed exploration should expect disappointment, as the history of the era is handled in a simplistic fashion. The broad basics of Post-War life are acknowledged, such as the rationing, the racial prejudice against black and Irish people, and the need to rebuild after the war, but otherwise there is little for historians. That said, this is not the production for these people. Covering the history in too much detail would case the production to become a play rather than a pantomime, and where's the fun in that? There are also some amusing allusions to the real Whittington and even a reference to the hospital in Highgate named after him. No-one goes to a pantomime to learn, but if any children are inspired to examine the history of Hackney, Dick Whittington and the Windrush immigrants, that will always be a good thing.

However, pantos are always about style over substance, with music, comedy and action allowing the Hackney pantomime team to turn a 20 minute story into a 2 hours plus extravaganza. As usual, the panto is crammed with familiar songs (old and new) which are somewhat connected to the story. Dame Sarah belts out "And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going" and "Good as Hell", Fairy Bowbells sings classic Motown songs, whilst Queen Rat has a villain song which mashes up elements of "7 Rings" and "Bad Guy", and also covers "Sweet but Psycho". Some of the musical choices are genuinely inspired. An early song is based on "London Is The Place To Be", the calypso anthem featured in the Paddington films (another brightly coloured celebration of immigrants in Britain). Meanwhile, the use of "Rewrite the Stars" as Dick and Alice's love song highlights the parallels between their experience and Phillip and Anne's star-crossed romance in that film. These numbers provide a bit more depth and substance than you would expect in the pantomime genre, whilst keeping the basic sense of fun created by talented actors singing familiar songs.

The best thing about this production is the cast. All the lead stars have extensive stage experience, and it shows throughout. As Dick, Tarinn Callender is a likeable hero, and his recurring cover of "The Impossible Dream" brings heart to the human element of the story. The Irish-accented plays a feisty take on Alice Fitzwarren, a more active character who wants to see the world. Her voice is the weakest of the cast, but her cover of  "Higher Love" late in the first act proves strong. Annette McLaughlin chews the scenery as Queen Rat whilst Sue Kelvin is a pleasingly flamboyant Fairy Bowbells. Both have no trouble speaking their lines in Verse and are really enjoying themselves on stage. Meanwhile, Hackney panto regular Kat B is excellent as Uncle Vincent the Cat, even if the character is a lot less active in the story than cats should be in Dick Whittington retellings, he is a consistently lively and performer. His highlight is an impressive cover of the Disney classic "Everybody Wants to Be A Cat", where he replicates the jazzy growl of original singer Scatman Crothers whilst also providing something unique However, the one actor who truly makes the production worth seeing is resident Dame Clive Rowe, appearing in his 13th Hackney panto. It’s not hard to see why Rowe is one of Britain’s most iconic dames. Outside panto, Rowe often plays imposing characters (he played the sinister Papa Ge in the West End version of Once On This Island and McKenna's 2009 revival), so it’s a real treat to see him go “all buns glazing” into the role of uninhibited baker Dame Sarah, providing sweets to the audience and having a chat with a random theategoer in the stalls. The real test of a Panto is whether it can keep the audience engaged throughout, and the cast all succeed in keeping our attention.

The sets and visuals are strong throughout the production. The first act takes place in London and replicates the drab, bombed out colours of the era whilst keeping the set warm and inviting. For the second half of the show, things take a more fantastical turn as our five leads go under the sea and help a mermaid find an extremely valuable shell. This cause the Post-War theme to be dropped almost entirely (which is a shame), but has positive side effects. Mermaid Maia (played by Jemma Geanaus) is a lively and spirited princess, and a creative update of the Sultan who usually seeks Dick's help in the second half of Dick Whittington pantomimes. She combines a desire to look after her domain with an unlikely romance with Uncle Vincent. The underwater and tropical island imagery used in these scenes is lovely and surprisingly atmospheric.

The show also features some impressive special effects. The quick change used to turn an ordinary but large cat into Uncle Vincent is pretty impressive, and the shipwreck which ends act one adds enough danger to keep us invested in the story (there is never any genuine danger in pantomimes, but there should be just enough to leave audiences wondering how the show will get to its happy ending). The wire work used for Maia the Mermaid and Fairy Bowbells is effectively fluid, and there is a memorable action scene where a cute baby gorilla is turned into a giant monster for Dick and his friends to fight. However, the most memorable is a simple but impressive effect which opens wash act, as the screen turns translucent to reveal the characters behind it. It’s pretty simple, but communicates the fairytale tone with wonderful efficiency - it really creates the sense that this is a fantasy world. The costumes are pretty grand as well, with Dick and Alice getting pleasingly authentic 1940s fashions, whilst Vincent the Cat  has a fishy tie to accompany his cat tail and ears. To the surprise of no one, Dame Sarah has all the grandest costumes, shifting from giant yellow and green dresses to purple outfits, Carmen Miranda-inspired tropical headdresses and a grand wedding dress inspired by the pearly kings and queens of the East End. The fairy tale designs in panto are merely a coat hanger for all the music and comedy, but the are pretty effective in this regard, supporting the tone whilst providing the magic and wonder that could also work in a more serious production.

Despite the old fashioned setting, the humour is often very modern, with intentionally anachronistic jokes about Just Eat adverts, Primark and Fleabag. There is also a healthy streak of political humour, fitting given the fact the show premiered in the midst of the British general election campaign. Queen Rat has a henchman called Boris (played by Tom Lloyd), and this leads to several digs at notoriously self-serving Conservative British prime minister Boris Johnson (As Queen Rat tells him “If you lie often enough, some people will believe anything you say”). Johnson’s recent resounding win in this election will probably lead to this satire gaining a more vicious edge, but it still stays within the gentle and upbeat tone of the show. However, whilst the political jokes are amusing in their way, the most powerful messages come at the end, as the cast instructs the audience to “listen to the children” and improve the world by “speaking out wherever you go”. With its celebration of immigrants, and messages about challenging discrimination and looking after the natural world, Dick Whittington and his Cat communicates a strongly progressive set of politics, but it is never preachy, with things staying broad enough to please audiences regardless of political persuasion.

Aside from the story and messages, there is plenty of silly jokes and broad farce which can appeal to all ages. Sarah and Uncle Vincent throw cream pies at Alderman Fitzwarren, Alice tries disguising herself as a man in order to go sailing, and the characters always remain a few steps behind the audience. There are several lines which adults have heard a few times before, but are still funny (“I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens") We also her a few saucy innuendos around Dick’s name, but these are tame compared to the filth Julian Clary provides in the London Palladium pantos, and kids won't have a problem with them. As you may expect, plenty of jokes will cause more serious viewers to groan with embarrassment, but the sheer energy and enthusiasm makes this a pretty amusing production. 

In the grand panto tradition, the entertainment goes on for a bit beyond the inevitable happy ending. We are treated to an interactive cat song called "Cool Cat Chat", a sequence where Dame Sarah reads our birthday notices and thanks the band for their hard work, and a grand wedding for all three of the romantic couples. If things drag a bit at this point, the energetic concluding cover of Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" makes it all worthwhile. It is pointless to judge Panto by the standards of more traditional storytelling, but Dick Whittington and his Cat succeeds as pure entertainment. The lack of story can cause things to drag at times, but there are always impressive songs, amusing jokes and impressive effects just around the corner. It is certainly the escapist entertainment which the British public require right now. 


The Hackney Empire production of Dick Whittington and his Cat provides all the family friendly fun you would expect from a panto, with a charming and charismatic cast providing plenty of amusing comedy and catchy songs.  Even if the production could have done more with its Post-War setting, it still has interesting themes and ideas, and a magical atmosphere which make it satisfying for those who prefer more conventional forms of theatre. Dick Whittington and his Cat is definitely worth seeing, whether you are a keen pantomime geek or totally unfamiliar with the genre. 

Monday, 2 December 2019

Frozen II - Review

Frozen 2 poster.jpg

Who Made Frozen II?

Frozen II was directed and written by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, who directed the original Frozen. Alison Schroeder assisted in writing the script, along with a large story team. 

What's It About?

Three years after the events of the original film, Queen Elsa (Voiced by idina Menzel) is fully accepted as Queen of Arendelle, with her sister Anna (Voiced by Kristen Bell) by her side. However, she is bothered by a mysterious voice, and when she goes to follow it, she ends up accidentally unleashing a set of magical spirits which wreck havoc in Arendelle. In order to fix it, Anna, Elsa and their sidekicks - Anna's boyfriend Kristoff (Voiced by Johnathan Groff), childlike talking Snowman Olaf (Voiced by Josh Gad) and Kristoff's reindeer Sven - head to a magical forest which has been closed off from the rest of the world for decades. When they enter, they find a mysterious tribe (the Northuldra) a group of Arendelle soldiers trapped for decades, several mysterious creatures, and some disturbing secrets about their own family....


(Note: this review contains spoilers. Most key secrets go unrevealed, but a lot of elements are discussed and hinted at, so tread carefully if you want to avoid surprises....)

The unprecedented success of Disney's 2013 animated smash Frozen set an impossibly high bar for Frozen II. Whilst the original film was full of flaws, its memorable characters, timeless but relevant story, big themes and brilliant songs ensured that it captured the imaginations of millions of viewers all over the globe. Was Frozen II able to replicate the magic of the film whose success was a happy accident? Well, Yes and No. The story is a bit of a mess, but the characters, visuals and songs remain strong and the big important themes ensure that it enjoys a substantial fraction of the original's resonance.

The primary problem of Frozen II is that it tries to do too much and lacks the originals simplicity. When you strip away all the treacherous princes and kooky trolls, the first Frozen had a simple story not far removed from other revisionist fairytale films such as Shrek and The Princess Bride. Anna goes on an epic journey, she goes back, there are obstacles both ways, she gets a happy ending. However, Frozen II tries to tell a far larger and more complex story in approximately the same runtime, and this turns out to be a major fault. Pretty much EVERY character from the original appears at some point, and there is a large cast of new additions when Anna and Elsa reach the enchanted forest. These characters, including Northuldra Chief Yelena (Voiced by Martha Plimton), teenage tribespeople Ryder (Voiced by Jason Ritter) and Honeymaren (Voiced by Rachel Matthews) and former Arendelle soldier Lt.. Mattias (Voiced by Sterling K. Brown) are likeable and have enough unique features to be memorable, but are absent for long stretches. Elsa and Honeymaren have a couple of lovely interactions, but a few more scenes if them together would have strengthened their bond and satisfied the fans clamouring for Elsa to get a girlfriend (a full-blown same-sex romance would have been too much for this film, but the fan demands could have been acknowledged more). Mathias and Yelena share some good chemistry as they go from enemies to allies and advance the anti-prejudice message, but a lack of screentime prevents their arc from getting the development it deserves. There are numerous similarities to Moana (Our leads have to go on a journey to right a wrong done to nature in order to save their kingdom, and are helped and hindered by various nature spirits along the way) but whilst that film could be pretty messy too, it had a much clearer structure which essentially consisted of two humans and a very dumb chicken on a raft. Frozen II has double the number of protagonists and double the number of nature spirits. This means that it rushes through its story quite a bit, which is a mistake in an age where we expect greater character development and less of the plot holes and unanswered questions which frequently appear in traditional fairy tales. Ultimately, it is hard to deny that trimming the character count would have made the story tighter and more efficient.

However, the focus should not be on the supporting characters, but the "Frozen Family". Fortunately, our leads are generally depicted  effectively. Elsa gets a larger role, and her signature anxiety is mixed with greater level of confidence in her powers. The woman who spent the first film running away from her problems is now running towards them, and this is great to watch. Anna is a more serious character this time, although still prone to the odd silly moment. She and Elsa get to interact far more often than they did in the first film, and their love for each other is front and centre of the film. Of the leads, Kristoff probably fares the worst. The film mostly focuses on his attempts to propose to Anna, and her misunderstanding his awkward attempts at getting to the point. Whilst he gets some amusing lines, this feels a bit one-note, and he vanishes during the third quarter of the film, like most of the supporting cast. However, Olaf cements his status as a star character, and is probably even funnier than he was in the original film. Although the streak of dark humour from the first Frozen has mostly gone (Olaf is no longer at risk of melting), his wacky eccentric person personality generates plenty of laughs. His thirst for knowledge and refusal to shut up are very relatable for parents, and his uniquely over the top summary of the first Frozen is far and away the comedic highlight of the film. Anna and Elsa's parents have an expanded role, with new voice actors. Evan Rachel Wood gets to showcase her singing ability as Queen Iduna, and we learn more about how she ended up Queen of Arendelle. Whilst the casting of Alfred Molina as King Agnarr raises a few eyebrows (was he hired for his considerable talent and experience or his very close friendship with director Jennifer Lee?), he brings warmth and gravitas to his short appearance. People who love the original Frozen for Anna and Elsa's sibling bind will find plenty to enjoy here, and the numerous revelations about their past provide the extra layers to fans to analyse with their usual zeal.

There are plenty of impressive action sequences, but several feel a little rushed. The devastation of Arendelle could have been truly powerful and disturbing with more screentime, and a scene where Elsa battles a magical fire should have been expanded on too. However, the action scenes get stronger as the film progresses . Elsa's full battle with the Nokk is even more impressive than it was in the spectacular trailers, and the climax is full of wonderful imagery as Elsa's powers are showcased in a variety of ways. There are also plenty of creative visuals, with the Autumn scenery of the forest providing a more diverse colour scheme than the original film, and some icy imagery late in which makes the iconic Ice Palace from the first film seem tiny in comparison. There is also some effective camera work, with the camera following autumn leaves and providing some creative shots as the characters undertake their journey. Overall, Frozen II lives up to the epic experience promised by the trailers and promotional material.

For all of Frozen II's flaws, it improves rapidly during the second half, where the gentle and relaxed tone of the early scenes is replaced by something deeper, darker and more impressive. In particular, we are treated to an incredible scene where Elsa discovers the secret of her powers and family history. She ends up in an icy world of memories where she meets a few old friends and enemies, before fans are treated to a moment where her father explains he is reading a book by "some Danish author" (guess who?). However, the scene turns from joyous to horrifying as Elsa learns about the crime which led to the disappearance of the enchanted forest. Frozen II doesn't really have a villain to drive the conflict, but the sins of the past provide a level of drama and urgency which make the second half more focused and engaging. 

The songs are good on their own terms - they may not be as "special" as "Let It Go" was, but they are catchy enough to stick in the memory and are good enough to be listened to again and again after seeing the film. However, one weakness is the fact that many of them don't advance the story in the way that Frozen's best songs did. "Lost In The Woods" is a fun pastiche of cheesy 80s rock ballads (the sort you would associate with Chicago or Meat Loaf) , but it is so focused on emulating their music videos that it doesn't really add to the story. Olaf's "When I'm Older" has the sound and feel of a song from a 60s Disney Film, and is charmingly whimsical. "Some Things Never Change" has a more modern pop sound, and like "For the First Time in Forever", effectively contrasts Anna's happiness with Elsa's more serious view on life.

Whilst these songs are fun, the soundtrack features a greater volume of serious songs, and these are the best ones in the lineup. The opening song is an atmospheric folk ballad called "All Is Found" which is effectively repeated across the film. Elsa's first big songs, "Into the Unknown" is closest in sound to the songs from the original, with its piano hook and soaring chorus, but her other big power ballad "Show Yourself" is even more impressive. Frozen II's soundtrack concludes with a big eleven o'clock song for Anna called "The Next Right Thing", which starts with heartbreaking depression and grief, but has a powerful and hopeful finish as Anna resolves to set things right by herself. Whilst the more commercially minded "Into the Unknown" is the flagship song, it is the last two songs which are the best of a lineup that is a worthy successor to the Frozen soundtrack. 

One of Frozen II's specific strengths is the more detailed discussion of its environmental themes. The nature spirits are more developed than they were in Moana, actively leading Anna and Elsa to the truth in a variety of ways. The magical creatures in the forest, including the imposing earth Giants, the mysterious water horse the Nokk and the cute but firey salamander Bruni, all contribute effectively to this journey, and Anna and Elsa's growing connection with nature is as important as the human relarionships showcased throughout the film. In an age where environmental issues are becoming increasingly important, Frozen II's depiction of the value of nature and the consequences of disrespecting it feels powerfully resonant. It's not hard to see contemporary relevance in Olaf reacting to freak weather phenomenons by saying "This is fine" and pointing out "advancing technology is our saviour and our doom". Elsewhere, the ecological threats which Arendelle faces strike close to the bone in an age of floods and hurricanes.  However, as dark as things get in the second half, we can expect our two sisters to put things right in spectacular fashion - It is a Disney film, after all. 

Ultimately, Frozen II often represents an example of "what could have been" - there are so many good ideas and interesting premises that a lot of the fun for fans and viewers comes from trying to make a more adult and focused film (or TV series) out of these pieces. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the same is also true of Disney favourites such as The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the original Frozen. However, Frozen II's messier story prevents it from reaching the heights of the best Disney films. If the quality of Frozen II's last half had been spread across the whole film, then it would be one of the all-time Disney greats. In its current form, Frozen II is in the "good but not great" category. It is superior to Ralph Breaks the Internet, their last overstuffed sequel, but demonstrates that Disney Animation need to return to a simpler and smaller approach if they want to reach the heights of their classic output. However, even second-tier Disney is worth watching, and Frozen II has enough merit to ensure that it will gain plenty of fans. 


Like the first Frozen, Frozen II brings new meaning to the term "refrigerator movie" - the story doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, but the visuals, songs and characters are strong enough to paper over the flaws and provide an enjoyable film with plenty for Frozen fans and casual viewers. Frozen II often bites off more than it can chew, but maintains the bold and modern spirit of the original film, and there are plenty of incredible moments which make the film worth sticking with. Frozen II is worthy family viewing, and will stand the test if time reasonably well.