Review of Pussy: An Angela Carter Musical Extrava-ganza

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The cast with director Tony Rowlands (left) and librettist A.C.H. Smith (third from right)

Back in mid-October, I had the pleasure of watching the latest stage adaptation of Angela Carter’s work: Renato’s Theatre Company’s ‘Pussy’, an adaptation of Carter’s story ‘Puss-in-Boots’.Subtitled ‘An Angela Carter Musical Extravaganza’, this musical rendition was playing for a few days at the Alma Tavern & Theatre in Bristol to a small and intimate audience. While the play itself was a little on the short side, it was raucously funny and packed with suitably Carteresque innuendos.

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Le Chat Botte by Arthur Gaskin

Carter’s short story is based on the much-loved European fairy tale ‘Puss in Boots’, which comes in many versions, including those of Charles Perrault, Giambattista Basile and Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Where most older versions emphasise the cat’s use of trickery and deceit to gain power and wealth for his master, Carter lays greater stress on the raunchiness and humour of the story. Her puss (in) boasts early on that while “all cats have a Spanish tinge […] Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native Bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr. ‘Merrrrrrrrrrrrci!'” This Puss is also quick-witted and cynical, and makes fun of his master’s romantic musings. For example, when puss’ master says that he and his beloved do not need money for they will live on “kisses” alone, puss responds: “‘Well, you won’t grow fat on that, sir; though she will. And then, more mouths to feed.'”

Carter’s version first appeared in her 1979 collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, arguably her most popular work. However, along with some of her other stories, such as ‘The Company of Wolves’, Carter later adapted ‘Puss-in-Boots’ into a radio play, which was broadcast in 1982 by BBC Radio and starring Andrew Sacks. After her death in 1992, a number of Carter’s scripts (for radio and film) were published, including that of ‘Puss in Boots’, in the volume The Curious Room, edited by Mark Bell. For a lively discussion of Carter’s love affair with radio, you can listen to an interview with Charlotte Crofts for BBC Radio 4 here.

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Frazer Meakin as ‘Master’ and Simon Vardakis as ‘Puss’

Fast-forward to 2017, the 25th anniversary of Carter’s death, director Tony Rowlands and producer Marie Mulvey-Roberts have done a fabulous job of creating their own musical version of Carter’s raucous tale. Simon Vardakis does an excellent job of capturing the cheekiness and ribald cynicism of Carter’s puss, thanks to some laugh-out-loud lines written by librettist A.C.H. Smith and some fantastically-suggestive gestures. The musical starts strong with a song full of Italian words, both real and fake, made to rhyme with “Figaro”:

Ah bravo, Figaro,
Bravo bravissimo,
Fortunatissimo
Caterwaulissimo
Listen to thissimo
Marmaladissimo
Magnifi – cat.

Puss then gives a vivid picture of how he and his master live, cheating at gambling and “part[ying] with harlots”, surviving thanks to his intelligence and “wits” alone. The master, played by Frazer Meakin, is presented as a handsome fool and he interrupts another of Puss’s songs to announce that he has fallen in love. Puss does not waste this opportunity for a dirty joke – “He’s in love. He’s never divided her thighs” – as well as a cynical observation about how they will “starve” as a result of this infatuation. However, Puss reluctantly agrees to use his “tricks” to arrange a meeting between his master and the young woman referred to as Mademoiselle and played by Hayley Guest. The master then croons wonderfully about the “blessed morning” on which he “first […] beheld [Mademoisell’s] glorious eyes”. Again, Puss takes every opportunity to poke fun as his besotted partner in crime, responding to this love aria with a yawn.

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Lily Dyble as ‘Tabitha’

Puss then conspires with Tabitha, Mademoiselle’s wiley and sexy cat played by Lily Dyble, to separate the young woman from her cruel, older husband and to unite the pair of young lovers. Tabitha helps deliver a letter from the Master to her mistress, and when the latter wonders aloud if the young man might not be “a teensy bit over the top”, Tabitha responds with the cynicism of her male counterpart: “That’s men for you. Once their blood’s up, they don’t know when to stop.” However, unlike the naive and hopelessly-in-love Master, Mademoiselle seems every bit as cynical and straight-talking as her feline companion. “Oh, I want his blood up, make no mistake”, she bluntly acknowledges, “I shiver in this marital mausoleum.”

Although it is easy enough to arrange a meeting for the lovers when the husband is away “extorting his rents”, Mademoiselle is also guarded by an old hag. The fury pair of tricksters thus concoct a plan to sneak the young Master into the house, disguised as a rat-catcher. When at last the pair are alone, the Master starts to sing once again about the first time he beheld Mademoiselle’s “glorious eyes”, but she interrupts him immediately – “Cut the eulogising” – and grabs him before the lights go off.

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Haley Guest as Mademoiselle (second from right)

For the remainder of the play, Puss and Tabitha scheme and plot to remove Mademoiselle’s husband once and for all, for the “Master was not sated” and the “lust was unabated.” After the pair are finally united for good and have been given their “ending”, the entire cast come together to sing the praises of magnifi-cats everywhere:

And so make sure to be
In cahoots
With any puss you see
Wearing boots.
Dame Fortune has kissed ‘em.
And they work the system.

And as Puss and Tabitha then quickly add: “That’s cats for you.”

Despite being rather short, this was a highly entertaining and charming musical. The score by Christopher Northam was suitably vivacious and the singing was generally excellent, in particular Guest’s powerful soprano. Vardakis as Puss was clearly the star of the show, bringing the experience of an established performer and receiving most of the laughs. Given the musical’s modest length, I would like to see an expanded version of the play or see it paired with another adaptation from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. However, what was on display was superb and the play was a sell-out, a testament to the continuing relevance of and interest in Angela Carter’s work. Pussy was yet another brilliant celebration of Carter’s legacy, during a year of events that have recognised and celebrated her connections to the city of Bristol, as well as other fantastic stage adaptations of her work (including The Tiger’s Bride and The Lizzie Play). With Emma Rice’s production of Wise Children set for 2018, Carter’s work is alive and kicking a quarter of a century after her untimely death. As Puss exclaims at the beginning of Carter’s story: “Figaro here, Figaro there!”

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The cast with producer Marie Mulvey-Roberts (centre) and composer Christopher Northam (right)

 


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