Do you know the story of Puss in Boots? I mean, do you actually know what happens? It’s the one with the cat who becomes mayor or something, isn’t it? No, that’s Dick Whittington (and the cat doesn’t become mayor, that would be mental). The one with the weird under-the-sea bit with the dancing octopi? Nope, see above. The one with the evil Rat King and his legions of rat accomplices? Na-ah, that’s DW again. So what, I ask you, the hell happens in Puss in Boots?
Loads of stuff, it turns out, loads of really strange and disconnected stuff. Despite having a very familiar panto ring to it, and having been mulched up into a few Shrek films along with everything else that was pure and good about childhood, Charles Perrault’s story of a bossy, suited-and-booted magic cat isn’t actually a very familiar one. And it’s not going to be a whole heap more familiar after a night at the Hackney Empire, that’s for sure. This is as confusing a night in the theatre as you’re likely to have this December, but it doesn’t really matter because panto-goddess Susie McKenna has pulled off another evening of pure joy and spectacle that makes the finer details of the plot (almost) irrelevant.
It’s all got something to do with an evil miller who cheats his brother Tom out of his inheritance by threatening to drown his cat, leaving Tom and pussy-cat to roam the fields of France until they run into a shoe shop, where the cat requests some boots which may or may not make him magical, because actually it’s pretty damn magical for a cat to request boots in the first place. The evil miller might look like a likely villain, but actually he never turns up again and Puss and Tom instead travel to a kingdom populated by a villainous queen, a villainous witch, an ogre and assorted rogues and unfortunates. There’s a bit where Tom gets nekkid for Reasons and a complicated wrangle over royal succession, with Puss applying his skills in sword-fighting and silver-tongueing to save the day.
It’s glorious nonsense, and McKenna makes no effort to untangle it. It means there’s plenty of room for great comic set-pieces and musical numbers, but it does also create some basic problems. With at least two villains floating around it’s not always clear who to boo and hiss and who to root for, likewise the romances get hopelessly muddled and muted, and characters such as Celestine the Good Sorceress vanish almost entirely. Panto thrives on plot twists, but its moral universe must be clear and explicable for the audience to throw themselves into. McKenna hasn’t quite managed that here, and it makes for a slightly less satisfying evening than Hackney usually pulls off.
Luckily, there’s a glowing cast, Steven Edis’ winning musical score and more good-hearted, glitter-streaked pizazz than you can shake a fibre-optic wand at. The superlative Kat B, who played a mean King Rat in last year’s whizzo Dick Whittington and his Cat, plays Puss with slinky charm and a thick Jamaican accent, sparring with the audience and putting his charms to work on the ladies in the front row. Sharon D Clarke blasts the roof off as (slightly) evil Queen Talulah, raising Edis’ gospel-inflected score to spectacular heights, while Josefina Gabrielle pulls out some classic panto villainy as (very) evil witch Evilena.
Two years after Clive Rowe hung up his wig, there’s another new dame in Hackney, with Stephen Matthews taking on the role of Nettie Knowall. Matthews is loads of fun, though perhaps a touch less engaging than either Rowe or last year’s excellent Steve Elias, and he’s unfortunately saddled with a lot of dated jokes about social media. Nevertheless, he gets a great slop scene during a bout of (inexplicable) art restoration that puts the Lyric Hammersmith’s half-hearted milk-squirting bit to shame.
The decision to cast Matt Dempsey as Tom rather than the traditional cross-casting of the male hero is something of a break from panto tradition, and unfortunately Dempsey lacks the sparkle to justify it. Compared to the high-energy performances put in by the super Amy Lennox as spoiled Princess Petunia and Darren Hart as screeching maid Amnesia and Dempsey’s hero has trouble standing out.
Stephen Edis’ music can scarcely be praised enough. Where other panto’s stump for a solid score of re-worded chart hits, Edis creates a blend of genre pastiches and original tunes that gives Hackney panto it’s own thrilling identity year on year. The highlight of Puss in Boots comes during an inspired mash-up of ‘One Day More’ from Les Mis and ‘Last Midnight’ from Into the Woods that opens Act 2 with an uproarious hurrah. If there’s a better moment in a London panto this year I’ll eat my hat.
All things considered, it’s another winner from Hackney panto, and you’d have to be a sour-puss indeed not to fall in love with it by the final number. The problems here are bound almost inextricably with Puss in Boots itself. There was a barmy article by John Stevens in the Daily Mail earlier this month predicting the death of the pantomime dame in the face of political correctness (in a reversal on their usual perspective on men who choose to wear dresses). It bemoaned the rise of pantos such as Aladdin and Robin Hood, usurping ‘classics’ such as Puss in Boots and Mother Goose but rather than seeking some nefarious lefty plot to explain the shift, isn’t it more likely that they’ve fallen out of popularity because those Perrault stories just aren’t very engaging? That the best of their component parts have been refigured and reconstituted into ‘new’ panto scripts that also boast greater clarity and speak more coherently to a modern audience? After all, re-arrangement and cross-textual borrowings have always been at the heart of the commedia dell’arte and pantomime traditions.
But if it must be Puss in Boots, you’ve got to be thankful that it’s this one. Combining home-spun charm with great-hall razzle-dazzle and performed by a belting, brilliant cast. The Lyric Hammersmith’s side-splitting Jack and the Beanstalk may just have the edge on Puss for me this season, but it’s a close run thing, and fans of a more traditional bout of ‘It’s behind you’ would probably give it to Hackney on points. Quite seriously, McKenna and the stunning team at Hackney Empire could do a panto of Finnegan’s Wake and still have the whole family cheering in the aisles.