Puss in Boots at Hackney Empire
In the gilded surroundings of the Hackney Empire it is difficult not to feel a sense of tradition, of theatre interacting with history. This is entirely and appropriately matched by this very traditional pantomime that, although suffused with modern references and targeted towards a modern audience, still fulfils every expectation – from the orchestra in black tie to the audience’s choruses of “he’s behind you!”.
Hackney’s pantomime has been an annual feature for 15 years, each one written and directed by Susie McKenna, with music by Steven Edis. McKenna seems to have taken inspiration from Game of Thrones this year: there is a complicated plot involving an evil queen, evil witch and evil ogre all vying for the crown. Most of the first half is spent introducing new characters – still, the story is not difficult to follow, building nicely towards its happy ending.
It features fantastic scenes too – one of the best is in a shoe shop where huge fluorescent shoe puppets sing an amalgam of Soul Man, Blurred Lines and What Does the Fox Say. Modern music is scattered throughout, including a powerful medley of Adele songs performed impeccably by Queen Talulah (Sharon D Clarke), Evilena (Josefina Gabrielle) and Princess Pertunia (Amy Lennox). Not only do these three give flawless vocal performances, but the entire cast is able to combine the high-energy, exaggerated acting that pantomime requires with excellent vocal abilities in some challenging solo and ensemble numbers.
Edis’ music is often twee (“it’s a beautiful day and I can’t stop myself from smiling”), but always catchy. It has the desired effect of stirring the audience who, at the beginning, do not seem to be in the pantomime spirit. Twenty minutes in that reticence fades and the responses to Dame Nettie become more vociferous, the booing for Evilena and Talulah fiercer.
Puss in Boots really is full-force panto: it has catchy songs performed brilliantly by Mark Dickman and his musicians, audience participation, really bad baddies and really good goodies. It has colourful costumes by designer Lotte Collett (including a social media themed frock for Dame Nettie) and bright sets. It does not rely on the big names of obsolescing celebrities, but rather on pure talent. Puss in Boots shows how theatre, without pretension and without cynicism, can look to traditional roots to fulfil the cliché. This is fun for all the family.
Puss in Boots is at the Hackney Empire until 5th January 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the cast and crew talk about the production here: