The Hackney Empire panto returns with big boots to fill

Puss in Boots at the Hackney Empire

Puss in Boots at the Hackney Empire - Credit: Archant

In a break from panto tradition, this Christmas the Hackney Empire will be staging an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s classic tale, Puss in Boots.

If there’s one sure sign that Christmas has arrived in East London, it’s when the curtains come up at the Hackney Empire for the first night of its yearly panto.

Famed across the country for its genre-defining stage shows, the theatre has built its reputation around the seasonal staple. This year however, its artistic director, Susie McKenna, has got a very special pair of boots to fill.

In a break from the ‘big five’ of panto – Aladdin, Mother Goose, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Dick Wittington – this Christmas the Hackney Empire will be staging an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s classic tale, Puss in Boots.

As McKenna notes, the once-popular story has not been professionally staged for nearly twenty years in London. Now, she hopes, is the perfect time to buck the trend.

“It sort of died out in the 90s…it became unfashionable, I don’t know why,” says the director, who also writes the annual panto. “Recently though, because of Shrek, the character’s been brought to a whole new generation and it just seems the right time to bring it back.”

The man chosen to play the fearless feline is MTV and Choice FM presenter Kat B, who has performed in the panto for six years running. McKenna explains that, much like Antonio Banderas’ fearless feline, her protagonist will be highly indebted to Perrault’s original vision, as will the rest of the story. Princesses, peasants, ogres and magic will all make an appearance alongside recurring panto traditions like cross-dressing, custard pies and ‘it’s behind you!’

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While other productions often choose to modernise such elements, McKenna is keen to ensure these classics remain the “bedrock” of hers. From there, she integrates the more up-to date references – the pop music numbers, the cultural in-jokes (“haven’t you heard of IAMS, puss?”)

“You can’t ignore the traditions,” she adds, “You have to treat them with respect. Where a lot of theatres run into trouble is when they try to send panto up.

“The thing is that ultimately you have to believe the guy in a frock really is Thomas’s aunty, otherwise the kids just won’t care. You need them to be passionate, to be furious with the witch.”

McKenna is in as strong a position as any to talk about the panto’s merits, having produced it alongside Steven Edis for a hugely successful fifteen years. In fact, it is this tenure which has spurred a new exhibition, ‘Oh yes it is: Celebrating 15 years of Hackney Empire’s pantomime’.

The free exhibition, which runs at Hackney Museum until April, displays set designs, scripts, costumes and historical information that give a rare insight into the huge volume of work that goes into the show each year.

So what is it that continually draws London to this panto, which is now responsible for an incredible third of the Empire’s annual income?

“It’s important to people,” McKenna says, “because it provides a rare time when families can sit down and watch something en mass. I mean we don’t watch TV together anymore, do we? The kids will be in one room, parents in another.

“It makes people revert to their childhoods, and it’s also unique because the audience is fifty per cent of the show. The only thing that maybe gets close to that is circus, but even then it’s not quite the same. And of course, that’s why we want everyone to bring their voices.”

‘Puss in Boots’ at the Hackney Empire runs from now until January 5. For more information and tickets, visit