With its gorgeous interior, music hall echoes and warm, welcoming sense of community, Hackney Empire remains one of the most beloved of London theatres. And the venue's pantomimes, written and directed since 1998 by Creative Director Susie McKenna, are among the best regarded and most highly anticipated of the season. If the last couple of Christmas shows have disappointed some, then that's been due mainly to the absence of the venerable Clive Rowe – the theatre's regular Dame – in the cast. But Rowe's successor, Steve Elias, won mostly great reviews for his performance last year and the post-Rowe productions have still proved hits for the Empire. This year looks unlikely to be different as, with the rarely-performed Puss in Boots, McKenna and her team deliver another lively mix of song, dance, madcap humour and loud-and-proud E8 localism that, while not quite a classic, adds up nonetheless to a very enjoyable evening.
Boasting a gleefully gaudy design by Lotte Collette, the production transports French writer Charles Perrault's Italian-derived tale to the "kingdom of Hackneyonia" where our feline hero pitches up with his master Thomas, after the latter is usurped out of his inheritance by his brother. Played with great gusto by the charismatic (and aptly monikered) Hackney regular Kat B, this Puss is a strutting, saucy, Jamaican-accented swashbuckler. And after donning his magic boots, it's not long before he and Thomas are heading to Downs Park Abbey, residence of the bad Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha, who's embroiled in a feud with her enabler and childhood chum, the evil witch Evilena. Add to the mix a pert princess, a cheeky housekeeper and an ogre, and the stage is set for some class-crossing romance and a good-versus-evil face-off that will require Puss's ingenuity to save the day.
The plot that McKenna has fashioned from Perrault's story feels more cluttered and all-over-the-place than usual, lurching from one set of characters to the next with little regard for even a semblance of continuity or coherence. Tossed into the mix are a tap dance routine, Les Mis and Lion King parodies, an art-class interlude and a whole heap of revelations in the second half, plus a singalong cat chorus. Some promising elements are simply thrown away, and with fuzzy plotting and not one but two villainesses on board, audience members could be forgiven for being rather confused as to just whom to hiss at first.
What villainesses, though! Last seen giving a performance of memorable quiet power in Rufus Norris's great NT revival of The Amen Corner, the mighty Sharon D Clarke is back on belting form here. The actress goes all-out as Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha, stopping the show with her soulful singing, right royal rump-shaking ("Boo me! I'm booty-licious") and great put-downs ("Ignorant rabble! I bet you all come from Shoreditch!"). Clarke has a perfect match in the ever-stylish Josefina Gabrielle, who's in typically terrific, throaty form as the eminently hissable Evilena. The production is at its juiciest when these two are facing off, and one might wish that McKenna had made more of the Wicked-ish back-story between the pair that sadly remains little more than a tantalising hint.
Currently raising the roof of the National Theatre with his sensational performance as King Darius in The Light Princess, Clive Rowe is of course absent from the stage again this year (though he was spotted in the press night audience). His replacement this time out is Stephen Matthews who does decent though not especially distinctive Dame duty as Nettie Knowall, Downs Park's housekeeper, who is Nick Knowles, Alan Titchmarsh and Mary Berry rolled into one. More fun is provided by Darren Hart, who's a scream as Nettie's airhead daughter Amnesiah, and by Amy Lennox who stomps brilliantly through a rendition of Jessie J's "It's My Party".
There's a decided lack of lyricism to the approach overall, and some moments are over-extended. But McKenna's production – helped along by stellar music and choreography from Steven Edis and Frank Thompson – is another fun festive family treat from the Empire, a purist panto with enough attitude and edge to make a trip to Hackneyonia well worth your while.