Puss in Boots

(Queensland Theatre Company)


Adapted and directed by Scott Witt

Professional production

Panto hasn’t been part of the Australian theatrical tradition for a long time, maybe 60 years or more, since the introduction of television and its resulting different kind of comedy. There are so many special programs for kids, who are becoming more sophisticated by the minute, that the old-fashioned appeal of audience involvement, Spot-the-Villain and cross-dressing might, one would suppose, have lost its magic.

But thankfully it hasn’t, as the success of movies like Shrek has triumphantly proved. That is a movie that three generations can watch together, with something for all of them on a number of levels. And in the live theatre, it’s probably the only way to do panto these days.

So don’t you worry about that. Scott Witt’s adaptation of the old pantomime favourite Puss in Boots is proving a winner for the QTC, for he’s managed just the right balance between simple story-telling and good old-fashioned fun, with plenty of engaging stage props and enough double-entendres to keep even the adults in the audience awake.

There’s also a touch of sentimentality to tug at susceptible heart-strings, too, with Paul Bishop as the grieving father and Veronica Neave as the poor motherless son sharing the child’s favourite bedtime story, watched over by the spirit of the dead mother sob, sob. This framing device, which leads into the dream sequence that makes up the main story, is probably the weakest part of the show, but it’s soon over so that the old-fashioned fairy tale silliness can take over.

If you don’t already know the story, which goes back to the 17th century French tale told by Charles Perrault, you have indeed had a deprived childhood. What! No sleek masterful cat in skin-tight moleskins and Cyrano-type hat buckling his swashes? No Fairy Godmother, Evil Villain and Idiot Son? No miraculous transformations of character or Right conquering Might? No wonder you grew up confused.

Like all fairy tales, by the end all has turned out for the best in this best of all possible worlds, so all the audience has to do is sit back and be entertained. And all the reviewer has to do is tell you whether and why it worked.

Rest assured, it did work, largely because three basic necessities of any production are magnificently fulfilled. Never mind the plot that’s given, and all you have to do is let it roll along, without even having to suspend your disbelief. We’re in Fairy Land here, where anything can happen, so it doesn’t have to be logical. All we ask is a decent group of actors, a classy design, and a witty directorial concept and this is precisely what we get.

Director Scott Witt has lived up to his name again, for there are lovely touches in this production, like the loopy doubling of the adorable Emily Tomlins as the Fairy Godmother and the guard called Darren. The names are Dickensian-with-a-twist, with a wicked villain called Sir Bloggs, a Princess named Rupert (a nod to the all-powerful magnate here?), and the ineffectual King Buttons straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

It’s a brilliant cast, with Veronica Neave at her wicked best as the arrogant Puss. Those white silk trousers and lace–trimmed boots, that complete physical control as she leaps about the stage, that self-mocking grin as she sends herself up rotten aren’t we lucky to have her back? She even makes a semi-believable primary school child, bouncing all over her bed, although there’s often a little too much caricature here of the adult playing the child, so that the Son becomes a fairy tale figure himself rather than fitting well into the reality frame.

Paul Bishop is amiably self-conscious as the dopy Pippo the Miller’s son, who goes off with the cat to save both his father’s business and his plastic Princess (Niki-J Witt wickedly displaying more than a touch of the Mary of Denmark syndrome?), but he’s an affable fool, the perfect foil to his dashing cat who conveniently turns back into a naughty puppet when Neave has to go off-stage for a quick costume change.

Of the much-beloved Adam Couper what can we say except that he’s his usual winning self, both as the dumb static Miller whose house is about to be destroyed by the evil Sir Bloggs (Boo! Hiss!), and as Bloggs himself, with seriously sexy mustachios and a fine line in growling.

Anthony Standish doesn’t have much to do except shuffle sideways like a paper puppet as King Buttons, but he does it superbly, but for me at least, the star of the show was Emily Tomkins as the Fairy (does my bum look big in this?) Godmother.

She fusses onto the stage in a semi-circular crinoline that displays her pneumatic bust, for all the world like Mary Poppins on a mission, and does one of the best audience participation routines I’ve ever seen. By picking out just two or three people in the audience a two-year-old in the front row, and a man she names Roy and talking to them directly, and by asking us what she should do next, she makes us all feel part of the party. It’s a really lovely performance, one of the best she’s ever done, and once again she displays the breadth of her talent, and adds another dimension to her repertoire.

None of this would work, though, without Jonathan Oxlade’s design, a versatile single set that’s easy for the actors to move around, while providing four or five different locations. It’s visually appealing without being too cute, and provides a perfect background for the truly wonderful costumes I remember particularly Puss’s waistcoat, the Miller’s long skirted apron, Princess Rupert’s party frock, and the outlandish cardboard cut-out that King Buttons wore.

All panto needs a song or two, and here they are provided by the multi-talented Adam Couper, although I have to say that they’re not as tuneful and immediately appealing as I’d expected, and they didn’t have much toe-tapping sing-along pizzazz.

But overall the production was great fun, and you don’t even need the excuse of having a tame kid to go along and see it. This is old-fashioned panto adapted perfectly for our times and, whatever your expectations, you won’t be disappointed

Directed by Scott Witt

Designer Jonathon Oxlade

Playing until 16 December 2006: Tuesdays 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday 7pm, matinees Wednesdays 1pm, Saturday 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 10 minutes, with a 20 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 15th November 2006)