“Do you want to join the pussycat chorus”
Though its position at other times of the year may seem a little precarious, Susie McKenna has built up the Hackney Empire into one of the must-see venues for pantomime in London, drawing in families from far and wide to their revitalised yet still classic take on all the old favourites. This year is the turn of Puss in Boots to get the E8 treatment but as Kat B takes to the stage drawling through a heavy Jamaican accent and exhorting us to call out ‘Puss in Boots dem’, it is soon clear that this lesser known panto has had a little tinkering.
So whilst we do have a young miller’s son Thomas, who is cheated out of his inheritance and left with just his faithful feline who finds his way into a magic shoeshop, there’s also the various members of the royal household of the kingdom of Hackneyonia to get to know, as an evil queen has taken advantage of a missing prince. Along with a good fairy and an evil witch both trying to get their way. Plus a surprisingly effective ogre. So it can be a little perplexing to work out exactly what is going on, especially when there’s two separate villains to boo and for a title character, Puss doesn’t actually have a huge amount to do.
The performance level is sensational though, the entire cast fully engaged with the task of entertaining (and at this performance, expertly negotiating the demands of a primary school-heavy audience too young for most of the humour). Sharon D Clarke’s Queen Talulah is a bootylicious delight, whether belting out ‘The Show Must Go On’ or an Adele medley; Amy Lennox is huge fun as her spoilt brat of a daughter, the precious Pertunia; and Josefina Gabrielle is scene-stealingly good as the under-utilised evil witch Evilena.
Although liberally sprinkled with contemporary references (“she thinks she’s in Game of Thrones”; “it’s like an episode of Chicken Shop”) and local colour (Thomas pretends to be the Marquess of Peck-n-n-ham), McKenna’s script also relies heavily on a hackneyed sense of humour. First-time dame Stephen Matthews works his way through pages of jokes without ever really catching fire and (one poor soul called Matt aside) there could be more specific audience interaction to really involve us all in his scenes.
But there are inspired touches too – the Act 2 opener borrows cheekily and amusingly from a well-known West End musical, the sing-along is charmingly done with some purrfect masks, and the music throughout (by Steven Edis) is excellently done. Throw in some impressive video effects and a few handfuls of sweets and a thigh-slapping good time is surely in prospect.