There are some winter traditions that never fail us. London will grind to a halt at the first sign of sleet, Oxford Street will turn into a festive free-for-all the week before Christmas and Hackney Empire will put on a good panto.
Dick Whittington and His Cat isn't perfect, but it is a good night out. There are terrible puns, an excess of hearty thigh-slapping that must leave lead Joanna Riding black and blue and plenty of opportunities for the audience to disagree with the actors in time-honoured panto tradition. Oh no, there isn't. (Sorry, it's a hard habit to stop).
The role of Principal Boy is often a thankless one, there for a bit of androgynous titillation and to move the plot forward, but Riding gives good deadpan as the plucky young lad who goes to London to seek fame and fortune. Her high-octane performance powers the show through even its lengthy first act, and she displays a fine bit of swashbuckling in the second that made me long for a good revival of The Pirate Queen.
Those of you who have finally stopped humming Adele's Skyfall theme song won't thank Steve Elias for getting it lodged back in your head, but it's worth it to hear him belt. A pantomime is only as good as its Dame, and Elias - who also choreographed - has the perfect acidic touch, with a heart of gold concealed behind his impressive cleavage. His entrance - parachuting in with a certain tuxedoed member of Her Majesty's Secret Service - sets the scene for a campy, vampy turn. If Daniel Craig is auditioning Bond Girls for his next outing, he could do worse than Elias.
Alexia Khadime is a feisty heroine, although having Dick's love interest be the daughter of an Alderman shopkeeper made me briefly worry that we were about to get Iron Lady: The Musical. Tony Whittle as her father comes close to stealing the show - his double-act with Elias' Sarah the Cook is the perfect combination of bitchy banter and flirtation - and Stephen Emery's athletic Puss is underused but enjoyable to watch.
Kat B's King Rat is a delicious villain, but he brings a complexity to the role that makes him hard to hiss. The subtle indications of schizophrenia are never entirely fleshed out, and at times he seems to have wandered in from a much darker show, but in the end it was his happy ending I was rooting for.
The problem is that half the cast are so good that the rest wilt in comparison. Rina Fantiana is fantastic in the right part, but sadly Fairy Bowbells isn't it. Darren Hart's narcoleptic Idle Jack sent me to sleep whenever he woke up, and Act Two's mermaid love interest was a bit of a drip.
Still, director Susie McKenna knows how to put on a good panto, and this doesn't tarnish Hackney's reputation for a good bit of festive fun. There are touches of political satire - you can't have Dick Whittington without a few good jabs at the Mayor of London - and an anger pulses beneath the custard pie jokes and pratfalls that is never fully expressed. In the end, it's a little uneven in tone, but the children in the audience didn't seem to care. One little boy behind me got so frustrated that Dick didn't realise Puss was behind him, despite the audience repeating it ad nauseum, that he stood up and shouted "Just turn around!" Overall, Dick Whittington and His Cat ticks all the boxes for a good panto - and if Joanna Riding ever wants to run as Mayor of London, she's got my vote.