Laughter and Cake Backstage with Kat B: Aladdin at the Hackney Empire

Kat B as the Genie (centre), Ruth Lynch as Spirit of the Ring (left), Fred Double as Aladdin (right), Ensemble and Young Ensemble. Pic: Steve Gregson

Local panto legend Kat B takes Eastlondonlines backstage at Hackney Empire as doors open for Aladdin, the historic theatre’s 24th pantomime. Kate Balding reports.

Hackney Empire has been entertaining Londoners from its Grade II listed building since 1901 but of the 200,000 people it welcomes every year, only some get to peak behind the velvet curtain.

Sharing the secrets of the stage, ELL joined Hackney icon and panto Genie, Kat B, for a backstage tour before the press opening got underway.

“Everything doesn’t have to be work all the time” Kat says laughing on the empty auditorium stage.

Despite a rich career spanning theatre, TV, choreography, radio, and comedy, he seems right at home beside the colourful props and backdrops. This might have something to do with his having performed in every one of Hackney Empire’s pantomimes. 

“To me, Hackney means lifeline and connection,” he said “and the Empire is still old school if that makes sense. It hasn’t lost its ground level of being able to connect with young people year on year.”

This is evident from the 4,000 young people aged 12 to 25 that the Empire sees through its Creative Futures programme, a project which helps young people build confidence and overcome barriers to entering the arts industry.

This year, young dancers from the programme’s Artist Development cohort join the production alongside a group of under 10’s from the Vestry School of Dance and Performing Arts.

Kat B (right) as the Genie and Fred Double (left) as Aladdin. Pic: Steve Gregson

Kat’s enthusiasm for nurturing young people and the arts reflects his own pathway to the Empire and his love for the theatre is obvious as he described being made an official ‘Star of the Stage’ by then Creative Director, Susie McKenna.

“It was an honour for me because I’ve joined Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, Harry Houdini and that’s going to be immortalised in the history books not just in the Empire but the whole of Hackney.”

Moving to his dressing room, he shared how he kept his energy up over the festive season.

“I don’t do negative transference so if anyone has negative energy I just laugh it off and bounce it back. If it goes wrong on the day it goes wrong on the day!”

As other cast members bustled into the room for cake, calls or company, he said he enjoyed being the one making sure everyone was okay but when it came to troublemaking, this year’s lead, Fred Double had to be mentioned.

“Fred’s mischievous, a jack-in-the-box” he laughs, “but he’s a very talented actor and one to look out for.”

Before leaving, Kat imagined being a genie who gave out advice rather than wishes. His advice for ELL?: “Whatever you learn in life, it’s wisdom to pass on. Don’t keep it to yourself.”

Isabella Mason (centre) as Jazz and Ensemble. Pic: Steve Gregson

At the press opening yesterday evening, Kat embodied this positivity as a disco-bedazzled genie, distributing good vibes amidst a roly-poly of slapstick, water guns, foam buckets and singalongs.

Alongside Kat B, this year’s cast includes Olivier award-winning Clive Rowe, who directs and stars as a mesmerising Panto Dame, Widow Twankey, EastEnder’s Natasha Lewis as the perfectly wicked Abby-na-zaaar!, George Heyworth as the dastardly Mildew Funk, Fred Double as idealist Aladdin and Isabella Mason as a righteous Jazz.

The set, and particularly Widow Twankey’s costumes designed by Cleo Pettitt, are a pure manifestation of drag imagination with favourites including a large pink handbag hiding Mary Poppins depths and a show-stopping martini outfit spilling over with olives.

Modern-day songs are interspersed with original music by Steve Edis, with Will Brenton, the creator of the much-loved children’s show The Tweenies, being responsible for the script.

The tale of love, magic, celebration and generosity couldn’t have looked more at home in the heart of Hackney but be warned, as within any good panto, audience participation is inevitable, unavoidable and ‘despite-yourself’ enjoyable.

Aladdin will run at the Hackney Empire from until December 31 2023 with Dementia Friendly and Sign Language performances running across the season.

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