Christmas Shows: Cinderella: the makeover

Susie McKenna, panto doyenne, is treading a fine line. Can she mix ancient and modern at the Hackney Empire? By David Benedict

IN A snatched break in the middle of elaborate technical rehearsals, Susie McKenna grabs the phone and informs me "I'm in my smalls in the stalls". Dressed, so she says, in fishnets and boots, she is suffering an attack of rhyming couplets: the panto season has obviously got to her. As both principal boy in and director of Hackney Empire's Cinderella, McKenna has her work cut out, but if anyone can cope with the parallel pressures it's her. Despite being under 40, she's being doing panto every year for two decades. OK, so she missed two years when she was in Cats and one year her girlfriend had typhoid.

She describes herself as a jobbing actress doing everything from Peak Practice to playing the Jodie Foster-style character in a documentary about a serial killer, but the only shocking thing about McKenna's approach to this most popular of theatre forms is that not only does she write, direct and play a role, she stages the whole shebang in a fortnight. That would be impressive on a pub theatre production. For something on this scale, it's astonishing.

Where some directors sit down with the actors to determine meaning and motivation (the cast of the RSC's current The Taming of the Shrew spent five weeks on the minutiae of the text before getting down to staging), McKenna blocks her pantos - setting up every character's moves - on day one.

Less experienced actors expect to enter and move around as they want, but the high comic energy of pantomime requires something completely different to naturalistic television acting or most theatre performing. "It's a question of the whole company working together. It's blocked like a ballet, or moving soldiers around. They have to battle against a busy set and to play the comedy they have to stand next to each other and move on the speaking line in order to pull focus."

This is a highly traditional approach, drawing comparisons with the staging you see at Shakespeare's Globe or, indeed, with street theatre. "The blocking tells the audience where to look. You can absolutely direct their attention."

It's not just the acting mechanics which are traditional. Much of her script derives from standard routines, like the scene of the ugly sisters getting ready for the ball with heaps of wig nonsense. That's straight out of the traditional "Beautician" patter sketch, passed on to McKenna by Dame Freddie Lees.

None the less, she is aware of her Hackney audience and the sophisticated demands of street-cred children. Thus, much of the material has a modern twist. She's even introducted video for Sharon D Clark's black soul diva of a Fairy Godmother with her own Jerry Springer-esque TV Show.

Both Springer and panto itself share a degree of overt moralising, which proves to be McKenna's linking idea. "I think it's interesting to use a theatre show to point out the dangers of telly. It's a powerful magic to be used for good only."

To 9 Jan, (0181-985 2424)

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