If panto-making was the car industry, then Hackney Empire would be recession-defying Rolls Royce. Each year writer and director Susie McKenna crafts a slick machine of tongue-in-cheek contemporary references, ebullient choreography, singing that rocks the building and teasing innuendo that’s guaranteed to seduce even the most ardent pantophobe.
It has to be said, though, that in the years since its renowned dame Clive Rowe departed, there’s the worry that the Hackney Rolls won’t have quite the customary gleam to it. However, this year’s ‘Puss In Boots’ puts together a crack cast that shows there’s more than enough talent to justify this cat’s miaow.
Another beloved Hackney panto stalwart, Kat B (who else?) stars as an appropriately funky puss, strutting his stuff and inviting the audience to be his ‘pussy posse’. We find ourselves in Hackneyonia, where Thomas (Matt Dempsey) and Bully Brother Bruno (Darren Hart) are debating their late father’s legacy. When Bruno threatens to drown the cat if Thomas doesn’t give him the mill he has inherited, Thomas hands it over, and forms the partnership with the cat that will make his fortune.
In pantoland these days it seems that baddies increasingly have not just the best tunes but some of the best voices too. Fresh from the NT’s ‘The Amen Corner’, the fantastic Sharon D Clarke blasts the theatre with ballads as the evil Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha. Her daughter, Amy Lennox’s enjoyably brattish Princess Petunia, is all ringlets and poisoned petulance – she’d be equally entertaining whether it was opera or Oprah.
Gloriously, the most heartwarming romance is between Tony Timberlake’s King Konkers the Bonkers and Stephen Matthew’s omniscient panto dame Nettie Knowall – essentially Google reimagined as a bloke in a dress.
Against Lotte Collett’s sparkling set the evening goes from strength to strength – not least in Leon Sweeney’s magnificently convincing ogre. With musical and verbal references to everything from ‘What Did the Fox Say’ to ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ this is the Hackney panto on vintage form. If your boots are made for walkin’, I’d point them in the direction of East London.
By Rachel Halliburton