Sunday, 27 November 2022

REVIEW: Cinderella at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Cinderella is a classic children’s pantomime tale that has delighted audiences for decades. It is the epitome of the Pantomime genre with a comic Buttons, an earnest Dandini distributing invitations, the magic of the transformation into a ball gown and Shetland ponies pulling a carriage. You meddle with the stock characterisations as your peril which was obviously the starting point for the writer Leo Butler and Director Eva Sampson at Stratford East as they junked these elements and bodily reset the title in East Egypt. And why not? Well, how does setting it there, thousands of years ago, bring it into the modern day? Like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella playing with the audiences’ expectations is a great risk so you need to be very confident that your adaption will enthral and excite young families and offer the same shared joy as the original.

Their diverse audience certainly seemed to be up for it from the start and although some audience members seemed to be laughing when there was not even an obvious gag, the production swept us along in a brilliantly funny, inventive and wholly satisfying show. It quickly dispensed with prior expectations and showed a real sense of the essence of pantomime and a strong storytelling narrative which supported the heart-felt thoughts of believing in yourself with an underlying pollical message.

The result was a pastiche of musical and theatrical styles blended cleverly together into a coherent whole. There was a touch of the 1964 film Carry on Cleo about the whole set up and I was surprised that Cleopatra did not utter the famous line “Infamy, infamy they have all got it in for me!”. There were moments when we were reminded of the brilliant Morecambe & Wise sketch with Glenda Jackson in the business between Cleopatra and Caesar. There were moments when the front cloth business was reminiscent of the Music Hall acts that night have included Wilson Keppel and Betty and their famous sand dance. The creative team seem to have been inspired by these comic geniuses and rather than steal gags from them created their own modern-day equivalents.

The staging by Charlotte Espiner is bold and effective with strong centre pieces for Queen Cleopatra’s throne room, a detailed and practical Cinder- Cellarm an effective clock for the wedding ceremony and simple but attractive settings for front cloth scenes and the River Ni Lee. It all had unity and consistency that set the tone and scene. The costumes for Cleopatra, the God mummy and Caesar were impactful and witty and honoured pantomime tradition for fairies, villains, and comics.

The casting of Gigi Zahir as Cleopatra was inspired, looking like a cross between Amanda Barrie in Carry on Cleo and Freddie Mercury in “I want to break free”, they dominated the stage with immense presence but still allowed the others to bounce joyously off them. There were brilliant moments of sharp witty ad-lib (even if scripted) drawing on their experience as drag artiste Crayola. Opposite was Alex Wadham hamming it up (in the way Sid James or Ernie Wise might have done) as Caesar and enjoying the clever setups seeking assistance from the soothsayer Stinkus, swimming in the river Ni Lee, and falling for Cleopatra over again. He was a perfect foil and straight man, to Zahir’s flamboyant creation. The milky bath slapstick scene was a good idea but lacked full commitment in the execution to make the most of the clever set-up.

Cinderella was also beautifully played by Gracie McGonigal creating an inspiring role model figure with her big list headed by the plea to “Be Kind, Share the wealth” and creating a strong sense of her isolation and loneliness before blossoming triumphantly in the second half. She sings wonderfully, has a good balance of nuance and pathos and reacts delightfully and expressively to the business around her. Her support by Kathryn Bond as the puppeteer behind Sphinx (the cat who seems to replace Buttons!) and then the Fairy GodMummy was excellent too although at times she seemed a little breathless as her high-energy delivery caught up with her.

The music with lyrics by Leo Butler and music by Robert Hyman (a regular part of the creative team since 1998) was another delightfully enjoyable feature of the show. The Kate Bush parodies between the Soothsayer and Caesar in “I see the future” and Caesar and Cleopatra in “rolling the ball” were outstanding as was Cleopatra’s brilliant opening number. The use of Cher’s “If I could turn back time” was a very clever reimagining of the Cinderella story beat when the clock strikes 12 which was cleverly combined with another staple of pantomime, the story recap to create a show highlight assisted by a very practical and effective clock.

These elements all came together into a seamless show where the messages flowed naturally from the action and were therefore made more impactful and relevant calling for “the courage to stand up”, the creation of “possibilities for everyone”, the desire to “make the world a better place” and a warning to “choose your leaders carefully” to make a “better safer world”. This was a well-conceived show, well-staged, with some great musical choices and strong central performances that defied the expectations, reinvents the pantomime with a set of values aligned to the local community but most of all is simply great fun. What will they do next year with Jack and the Beanstalk?

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row E | Price of Ticket: £35

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