For those who dread seeing yet another family-friendly Christmas pantomime starring a former EastEnders cast member as Widow Twanky, fringe theatre company Excess All Areas’s fifteenth annual “slightly debased pantomime”, Kitten in Heels is a breath of fresh air. Excess All Areas plays with the traditional pantomime form, putting their own adults-only spin on it to create a night of bawdy humour and witty cultural references to be enjoyed by all – that is, if they’re over 18.
The synopsis, as Dame Choo aptly describes it in the play, is “akin to Puss in Boots – if you squint”. As per the original story, the play follows Dick Whittington to London as he goes in search of his fortune, accompanied by a female cat more reminiscent of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical than the character in the fairytale. When she requests a pair of shoes to aid her on her journey, Dick buys her not a pair of tough leather boots, but a pair of pink glittery heels that seem more fitting for this panto. Upon his arrival in London, he falls unrequitedly in love with Jenny Choo, daughter to the neighbourhood’s chemist, Dame Choo. He tries unsuccessfully to woo her, but she seems to have other interests – in the same sex. Meanwhile, Dame Choo becomes betrothed to her landlord King Rat, the spandex-wearing baddie of the show with a penchant for cheese.
The show’s strength undoubtedly lies in its topical script, written by Paul L. Martin who also plays the role of Dame Choo. With references to the #YouAintNoMuslimBruv hashtag and jibes at Katie Hopkins, it is clear that the script is constantly being revised in order to stay up-to-date with pop culture and current affairs. The show’s humour is also cleverly geared towards its audience, with a rousing rendition of ‘City of Shite’, sung to the tune of The Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life’, lamenting the reality of living in London. Their choice to include familiar tunes with revised lyrics is a wise one, as audience members instantly connect with the song and then are taken by surprise when the lyrics take a turn for the smutty and comical. The nature of pantomime lends itself well to ad-libbing, with the cast members quickly being able to respond to audience heckles that didn’t necessarily fit with the script. The fourth wall is well and truly broken by the cast and the audience embrace this with open arms – although this could be somewhat credited to the presence of the bar in the auditorium. Martin undoubtedly gives the strongest performance as Dame Choo, but this is expected as the company is his creation. This said, there are no weak performers in the cast of seven and the show, while slapstick and comical, is clearly very well-rehearsed to achieve the perfect comic timing.
There are some pointed remarks made at the expense of “brown people” in the second half that seemed to sit uncomfortably with the predominantly white audience, especially as all but one of the cast members are white as well. While these jokes seemed to be made with tongue firmly in cheek, the audience was palpably less responsive. However, the almost improvisatory nature of pantomime probably allows the cast to gauge audience response to jokes and edit the script as necessary. I also felt the focus of some cast members slipping in the second half, as they seemed to be much more easily distracted by audience heckles. However, in the collective state of inebriation in the audience, I doubt that many other audience members minded.
Overall, the camaraderie of the performers and their ability to conjure up quips to counter the audience’s remarks are what make this panto so effective. The company may not have the props or budget of a West End show behind them, nor give the slick performance you expect when you’ve paid £60 for your ticket, but their acknowledgement of this only helps them to retain the charm of panto that keeps the audiences coming back for more.
Kitten in Heels is playing at the Lost Theatre until 20 December. For more information and tickets, see the Lost Theatre website. Photo: Excess All Areas.