Review: Dick Whittington and His Cat (Hackney Empire)

This year’s Hackney panto takes on the classic story of a boy and his cat

The cast of Dick Whittington and His Cat
The cast of Dick Whittington and His Cat
© Robert Workman

It is easy to tell that Hackney Empire's Dick Whittington and His Cat is the work of those who are extremely well-versed in the panto tradition. Since 1998, Susie McKenna has written and directed every festive offering at this venue with composer Steve Edis. Their production this year is clearly marked by a confident and playful expertise in the form: it knows its way around the audience's hearts and minds, and offers a delightful, smoothly exuberant take on the classic Dick Whittington tale.

In McKenna's retelling, Dick has become a young Jamaican who arrives in London as an Empire Windrush passenger in 1948. Clad in a striped crimson suit, eyes glowing with the hopes of a bright future, Dick disembarks from the ship and steps into a series of fantastical misadventures. Conveyed with minimal but smart touches, this post-war context of immigration provides an unassumingly resonant frame for the rags-to-riches story.

McKenna brings out consistently hilarious performances from an increasingly harmonious cast. Clive Rowe is tremendous as Dick's mother, the Dame Sarah the Cook; in his hands, Sarah turns into a diva whose bawdy humour is matched only by her star turns as a shape-shifting temptress. Tarinn Callender portrays a Dick whose wide-eyed optimism and affectionate striving make for a deeply sympathetic hero. Annette McLaughlin's Queen Rat is majestically malevolent with her brisk, piercing invectives, and Kat B's Uncle Vincent the Cat proves to be an unfaltering source of comedic, purry gusto. Sue Kelvin, too, radiates much warmth as the Fairy Bowbells. Among the supporting ensemble, Jemma Geanaus and Tom Lloyd deliver memorably edgy performances as the self-dramatising mermaid Maia and the sycophantic rat Boris.

Richard Roe's clean, versatile choreography channels feline energy, adding further momentum to the evening. Of particular note are Queen Rat's writhing, swirling minions, who buzz with wicked charm. The brief appearance of a large gorilla puppet, designed by Scott Brooker, injects visual variety into a production already rich in detail. Lotte Collett's deft scenic design steers the story through several locations both in and out of London, including a luscious underwater world and a palm-leaved tropical island. Dappled often with purples, oranges, and yellows, David Howe's lighting helps ensure that the hijinks of the production are tonally consistent. It's a thoughtfully coloured world that gives a taste of the rainbow without becoming gauche.

After adhering to the outlines of Dick's familiar tale in the first act, the show charts a lot of new – and loosely structured – terrain in the second, which ends up creating a slightly uneven adaptation. As a result of this, the climactic scene feels somewhat glib and hurried; the Queen Rat's ultimate appeasement, in particular, is unconvincing. But still, this socially engaged and historically framed Dick Whittington hits the right notes with great frequency. Sprinkled with political nods, tongue-in-cheek anachronisms, and gentle reminders about the Windrush generation, Hackney Empire's 2019 panto looks both backwards and forwards in time and promises a genuinely entertaining present.