“Puss in Boots” Pantomime gives delight for young and old alike at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
Puss in Boots – the Pantomime, by Paul Jenden

Directed by Susan Wilson
Musical Director / Arranger – Michael Nicholas Williams
Set and AV design – Lisa Maule
Lighting – Marcus McShane
Costumes – Sheila Horton
Choreography – Leigh Evans

Cast: Gavin Rutherford (Camilla Miller)
Simon Leary (King Justin/Citizen)
Natasha McAllister (Martha/Citizen)
Jeff Kingsford-Brown (Mr.Brown/Troll/Citizen)
Jonathan Morgan (Puss-in-Boots/Citizen)
Carrie Green (Ms Green /Troll/Citizen)
Ben Emerson (Arthur Miller/Citizen)

Circa Theatre
Taranaki St., Wellington

Sunday 18th November, 2018

A director’s note in the programme from Susan Wilson paid tribute to the late Paul Jenden 1955-2013), actor, dancer, director and author of this and several other pantomines performed by Circa over the years, describing his presence as “sadly missed”. One of his most successful pantomime adaptations was of the well-known story of “Puss-in-Boots”, based on the European fairy-tale known in Italy as Il gatto con gli stivali, and in France as Le Maître chat ou le Chat botté (“The Master Cat” or “The Cat with the Boots”). The story tells how a cat uses his wits to gain power and riches for his poor, lowly-born master. Jenden’s pantomime, first performed by Circa in 2012, was here revamped and updated to catch the current drift of events and personalities that make Wellington the ideal on-going setting for such fairy-tale goings-on!

With recent Circa pantomimes “Peter Pan” (2017) and “Jack in the Beanstalk” (2016) having set positively vertiginous levels of expectation, I was thrilled to here find myself just as freshly “caught up” in the time-honoured fairy-tale theatricality of larger-than-life characters palpably becoming flesh-and-blood for a few precious hours of make-believe. I did struggle a bit at the very outset, finding it difficult to take in all the words of the very first musical number, despite the best efforts of the otherwise superbly characterised trolls of Jeff Kingsford-Brown and Carrie Green, my ears obviously adjusting to the acoustic – what English comedian Michael Flanders once called “getting the pitch of the hall”. Still, the gist of the characters’ intent (evil and mayhem! – naturally enough!), came across strongly in the dance movement, depicting the pair bent on taking the “Well” out of Wellington by being the spanner in the works of all recent disruptions such as the chaos caused by changed buses, bus routes and timetables. The Wellington settings and references continued throughout the show, giving it all a truly home-grown flavour and striking regular chords of approval with the audience.

The appearance of the remarkable Gavin Rutherford as the show’s “Dame”, in this case Mother Camilla Miller, established an immediate rapport with a sympathetic audience, Camilla losing no time in articulating to us her plight as a poor, lonely widow woman in the Aro Valley, “ruined” by the activities of her late husband, whose feckless behaviour had squandered the family fortunes. She then introduced her son, Arthur Miller (played by Ben Emerson with plenty of boy-next-door goofy appeal), the name  immediately occasioning the remark by Camilla “Google it, kids!”, first of a goodly number of wry references, including the priceless remark “Can you see Arthur Miller getting married to a rich and glamorous woman?” Social positioning in a “desirable” suburb – “Hataitai? – or Naenae? – or even Karori?” gives the song “Movin’ on up” its chance, as  we catch a glimpse of the eponymous cat for the first time – though Jonathan Morgan’s character lacked an ounce or two of voice-projection when singing he made up for it in sheer puss-onality, his dance leading to the entrance of a bevy of cats for a number inspiring a near show-stopping fusillade of cat-calls!

Adroitly evading both Mother Miller’s Trade Me “Talking Cat” schemes and the “Gareth Morgan” bogeyman threats, the Puss inherited the late Mr.Miller’s boots (along with his “hippie gear”), and lo! – we were suddenly in business! The cat was magically empowered and empowering, galvanising Arthur’s sensibilities with the suggestion that he could, with the Puss’s help, become “The Marquis of Makara” and then cementing their partnership with a song “Stick with me kid”, one whose positive vibrations countered the reappearance of the Trolls and their avowed goal of the city’s ruination, little by little, troll by troll!

Where would a modern scenario of Wellington be without a leader? – enter King Justin (Simon Leary a wonderfully “fairy-story-obsessed” monarch), here heralded at first by his feisty, kick-boxing daughter, Marilyn/Moana/Martha, whom he wished “was more like the princess you are!” while easing the patience of “a poor, lonely widower man”, taking time out from his troublesome affairs of family and state with a lavish picnic.  Marilyn (played beautifully by Natasha McAllister as a tomboy with simple-life, anti-princess yearnings) encounters Arthur, who, of course, falls in love with her – but she will have none of the “wooing of a princess” rigmarole, introducing herself to him as “Moana”. All of this was to the chagrin of Puss, who tells Arthur in no uncertain terms that he “deserves a princess” and to that end has been setting up the well-known “duckpond” scene for his master to make the happy transition from commoner to aristocrat, courtesy of King Justin and his daughter.

The fast and furious action involving all of the characters heading for the duckpond, with the Trolls, Mr Green and Mr.Brown (Carrie Green and Jeff Kingsford-Brown in scintillating and energetic song-and-dance form), embodying delight in mischief and malice, Marilyn/Moana/Martha rejecting the hapless would-be Marquis, Camilla Miller and King Justin disconcerted by each other’s presence, and the Cat pronouncing the ensuing mayhem a “cat-astrophe”, closes the first Act with the kind of gusto that leaves a quivering mass of unresolved tensions awaiting the best possible outcomes, which of course are realised in suitably quirky and post-happily-ever-after ways by the time the Second Act runs its breathless course.

Buoyed along by the music, a mixture of old and new (one particularly heart-warming number I’d forgotten that I knew!), contemporary and generational, with absolutely delightful word-adaptations in places, the show is a tribute in itself to the skills of musical director Michael Nicholas Williams, who accompanied most of the songs and joined in the vocalisations on occasions. Cheek-by-jowl with these energies was the engaging choreography of Leigh Evans, brilliantly tailored to fit both songs and situations, and performed with real panache by the cast members.

Pantos need “add-water” audiences to work, and this one was no exception – I found it at least as entertaining and involving from my “relatively sedentary” point of view as the other Circa productions along the same lines I’ve seen, with Gavin Rutherford’s command of blandishment and persuasiveness as potent with grown-ups as it is charming with children – the “bringing-onto” the stage of younger audience members is always a highlight of the proceedings, particularly the ensuing “out of the eyes of babes” expressions on some of the faces, immersed as they are in such a wondrous and magical land of flesh-and-blood make-believe! The range of jokes and gags covered all ages and sensibilities, with nothing too obviously risqué though still sufficiently “naughty” for the outrage to be funny. I thought the costumes and set designs and props deliciously colourful and beautifully lit (two highlights being the “cups” sequence performed by the King and Martha/Moana/Marilyn as they sang “When I’m Gone”, and the entrance of the royal carriage, with wondrously inventive horses providing a visual feast of spectacle and movement.)

In short, I would lose no time finding a jolly soul-mate (ideally along with one child at the very least!) with whom to go to this presentation. Susan Wilson’s direction and collaboration with her “creative team” has produced both a winner and a worthy memorial to the talents of the show’s original creator, Paul Jenden.

At Circa Theatre to the 23rd December 2018, and then from the 2nd to the 12th of January 2019.


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