Friday, 3 December 2021

REVIEW: Cinderella at the Wilde Theatre in South Hill Park

The pantomime season has started, and my first visit is to perhaps the most popular and traditional title of Cinderella at the small intimate Wilde Theatre in South Hill Park. Joyce Branagh’s script gives the familiar story a very fresh modern feel by setting it in HardUp Hotel run by Buttons and Cinders, although with the junior ensemble dressed as geriatrics with Zimmer frames, it looks more like an upmarket care home. Director Adam Stafford takes this starting point and integrates the Junior Ensemble into each scene to add depth to the small cast and create some of the best comedy moments of the show.

Victoria Spearing’s fourteenth pantomime set design once again sets new standards in creativity and innovation with a wonderful three truck set for the Hotel Reception which is practical and attractive and transforms into a beautifully conceived external gypsy caravan cafe wood scene that doubles up for the Finale walk down. In between it felt like what was left of the budget was sparingly used in the slosh scene and the ballroom scene which failed to match up to the quality of the opening scenes and the transformation scene was rather pedestrian. Alan Valentine’s colourful lighting adds to the pretty pictures created. 

Costume designer Naomi Gibbs builds on the themes with her most creative solutions being reserved for Ruth Less and her daughters Grace Less and Joy Less giving them a bright modern feel. Ruth looks like Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter in a wild wig and her daughters are dressed in garish tarty garb. They make a great threesome as they sashay across the stage together. Beth Bradley as Grace and Paul Toulson as Joy make a very good double act from their first entrance through the auditorium, during a simple but effective slosh scene until the classic slipper trying on scene. Together their Joyful “Simply the Less” routine and the wonderful “Big Spender” with an audience member on stage were the highlights of the show. 

Jacqueline Tate doubles up as a very Scottish Fairy Godmother and the villainess Ruth who bosses everybody around although her opening prologue charmingly acted out by the ensemble while she dresses lacks the pace and magic required to set the show off to a perfect start. The take-off comes when we meet Buttons and the Ensemble in “By your side” for a very well-choreographed geriatric welcome. Buttons is played by Michael Ayiotis (returning for a third year) who also doubles up as King Charming in an outrageous grey wig playing both with bags of energy and charm. It is always good to see the “you don’t do a day’s work” sketch played by Ruth and Buttons. 

Cinderella is played by Faye Ellen opposite Ben Featerstone’s Prince Charming, making a believable couple with good voices and a touch of humour in a well-executed “wall routine” as they sing “Can’t help falling in love” only to be constantly interrupted by Joy and Grace and a brownie from the Ensemble. There is a good twist to the usual scene of Cinders locked away when the Prince calls which adds a touch of much-needed magic. Connor Hignell as Dan and Aaliya Bhatti as Deeny provide good support and a new love interest for Buttons.

The choreography by Charlotte Steele integrates the Junior Ensemble and cast well and is at its very best in a very original and fun line up in black and white costumes for “I like to move it” which looks amazing and in a brilliant finale number of “Bring me Sunshine” with the cast on ukuleles accompanied by the Musical Director Tim Crumper just off stage.

South Hill Park has once again created a show that demonstrates what can be achieved with originality and innovation by a strong creative team on a limited budget and a small enthusiastic talented cast with a charming energetic and well-drilled junior ensemble. It is a show that is sure to bring some sunshine to Berkshire this Christmas.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row G | Price of Ticket: £25.00

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