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December 18, 2013 5:48 pm
Once more into Pantoland, this time to savour the curious story of Puss in Boots, identified by my young companion as a cat who “hangs out with Shrek and Donkey”. Kat B, our feline friend at Hackney Empire, has purr-fect dance moves, a Jamaican accent and is a bit of a ladies’ cat, to judge by his chatting up of the female members of the audience. He introduces us to a wild and whirling narrative derived from the classic fairytale and involving good and evil, a witch, a fairy, greed, snobbery, a royal coup and a grumpy ogre. It’s appropriately brave of the theatre’s expert pantomime writer and director Susie McKenna to venture into new territory for this year’s show, but the unfamiliar story does take its toll, even delivered in handsome style by Hackney’s experienced pantomime team
It’s a big, good-natured show, featuring many of the well-loved staples: mess, audience participation and some great pastiche musical numbers by Steven Edis. There is a particularly neat, old-fashioned dame, Nettie Knowall, who can trump the internet for endless and useless facts and is played with delicious, spry minxiness by Stephen Matthews.
The show bristles with enjoyable performances, most notably Sharon D. Clarke as the grasping Queen Talulah, whose sensational voice probably reaches the West End when she sings and who swishes her wickedness with great flair. “Go on, boo,” she says contemptuously to the audience. “After all, I am boo-tilicious.” Tony Timberlake is lovely as her mild, dithering king, who helped her dispose of Prince Casper, the rightful ruler of Hackneyonia, in the vain hope of a quiet life. Amy Lennox sulks and stamps as the spoilt Princess Pertunia and Darren Hart is sweetly ditsy as Dame Nettie’s forgetful daughter Amnesiah.
They all deliver with polish and energy, which is as well because the storyline is as mysteriously tangled as the Christmas tree lights when you first take them out of the box. There are so many layers you get lost en route and the story lacks focus and purpose. Puss in Boots, the magic cat, saves the day, though it’s not entirely clear how, and his master, nice but anodyne Thomas, has even less to do, meaning young audience members don’t have a clear, brave hero or heroine to follow. Plenty of individual moments to enjoy, but by the end you feel a bit like a cat that has been chasing its own tail.
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