It’s 1948 in London, and if you swap the West Country for the West Indies, you have the two heroes of Dick Whittington and his Cat, now playing at the Hackney Empire. Inspired by the Windrush generation, it’s a contemporary twist on the English folklore, reclaiming the narrative for those who emigrated from the Commonwealth.
Hamilton alumni Tarinn Callender plays Dick, fresh off the boat and ready to get stuck into London life. He is quickly given a lick of luck from his fairy godmother Fairy Bowbells, played by Sue Kelvin, who turns the ship’s cat into Uncle Vincent, a protective presence to fight off danger.
Uncle Vincent, played by Kat B, is sentimentally named after writer and director Susie McKenna’s uncle, one of the first people over in the post-war years from Jamaica. McKenna said in a statement: “The story represents a journey full of hopes and dreams, it’s a tribute to my own extended family as well as our local community.”
The production doesn’t shy away from recent Windrush scandals, and has an empowering Caribbean flair. Measured jokes about how Dick needs to ensure he’s in possession of his papers – as it might get a bit tricky for him otherwise – grounds the play in the current injustices faced by the Windrush generation.
Though it’s a light-hearted atmosphere in the Empire, there is also a recognition of the immense cruelty inflicted on Windrush immigrants who are now at risk of deportation by the Home Office for not being able to prove they came here legally.
The show is brimming with villains, the iconic Annette McLaughlin, (of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child), plays Vermina. Her posse of rats has an apt cameo of Boris Johnson. Boo her all you want, she’s still fabulous. The potential thief of her glamour is Maia the Mermaid, performed by Jemma Geanus. The ensemble swing and sway, elevating the story higher.
Dick’s love interest is the bubbly Alice Fitzwarren, played effortlessly by Christina Tedders. Before bursting into a song from the Greatest Showman, she points out they could never be accepted together.
She cites the signs all around them; “No Dogs, No Irish, no…” before being cut off by Dick declaring he does not care. This is a welcome gesture, but frankly not one I expected. While this was no polemic about race relations in the 1940s, it was an honest acknowledgment of the pantomimes chosen historical context.
Grand panto Dame Clive Rowe, in his 13th Hackney Empire show, plays Dick’s mother Sarah the Cook – she is nothing short of fabulous. She boasts innumerable outfit changes, and Chaka Khan and Carmen Miranda impersonations to match. She and love interest Alderman Fitzwilliam, played by Tony Whittle, father to Alice and boss to Dick, supply the slapstick; bad ginger wigs and pies in faces.
It’s a two-and-a-half-hour respite and delight from a cold and dreary Brexit general election. Hop along soon, and you might even catch a sweetie from Sarah.
You can buy tickets here. The show runs from now until January 5. Access performances are available on certain dates.