One of the major challenges when producing a pantomime is giving the audience what they have come to expect from this age-old tradition, whilst keeping it fresh and exciting year after year. I'm pleased to report that Susie McKenna and her team have done it once again.
Straying from the usual ‘top five' in favour of a take on Charles Perrault's lesser known Puss in Boots is a risk, but one that pays off for the Hackney Empire, whose annual panto has become one of the most revered in the land.
Set in the mythical realm of 'Hackneyonia', Thomas (Matt Dempsey) and his talking feline friend Puss (the aptly named Kat B) find themselves cast out from their home and on a journey to save 'Trafalgaria' from the evil Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha (Sharon D Clarke) and her bumbling King Konkers the Bonkers (Tony Timberlake).
McKenna's story is one of doubles, two love stories, two heroes, two villains (Clarke's Queen aptly countered by Josefina Garbrielle's evil witch Evilena) and two dames – Darren Hart as the Vicky Pollard-esque Amnesiah, pairing up wonderfully with her stage mum the delectable Dame Nettie Knowall (Stephen Matthews).
All the usual favourites are there, from the "It's behind you" to the "Oh no it isn't", topical references aplenty include Downton Abbey, jibes at rich bankers and renditions of some of the year's most popular songs including One Direction, Les Miserables and even viral hit "What Does the Fox Say?" Also, it must be said that Michael Bublé's "It's a Beautiful Day" is the perfect song for a pantomime opener and an inspired choice.
Audience interaction is rife and Empire panto stalwart Kat B does a great job with his ‘Pussy Posse', who yell "In Boots Dem" every time he springs onto the stage and shouts his name, although I'm not sure some of the older generation quite understood the local slang.
Fresh from The Amen Corner, Clarke excels as Queen Tululah, her legendary voice providing some truly show-stopping moments. Hart and Matthews provide a laugh (and sometimes groan) a minute. Amy Lennox and Allyson Ava Brown stand out in their energetic performances of the bratty Princess Pertunia and Good Sorceress Celestine respectively.
Many of the ensemble are Empire regulars, something the show benefits from greatly, their camaraderie is palpable and the slick choreography from Frank Thompson is performed splendidly.
Technically the show is very slick with stunning set design from Lotte Collett, the set for the finale fit for any palace. Scott Brooker's impressive design for the Ogre is accompanied by some equally remarkable visual effects.
Historically, Puss in Boots isn't one of the nation's favourite pantomimes (it has only been produced twice nationwide this year), but I predict that after the success of this production, we can expect to see it at many more theatres next year. Overall, a purrrfect night out for the whole family!