There are good pantos, there are great pantos – and then there is Cinderella at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury.
From the moment that you realise that the ushers up in the circle pretending to play the trumpet and saxophone aren't pretending at all, and are actually musicians Sarah Chandler and Karen Straw, it's clear that this a production keen to take the (already pretty flexible) rules of panto and stretch them as far as possible.
However, given this desire to challenge boundaries, Cinderella at no point feels out of control. Just on the right side of self-referential and with enough jokes in there for older generations sprinkled among the bawdier gags about “spectacular balls” and the like, this production has set its tone with laser-guided precision.
Also wisely deployed are the local references. Too many – and you lose half the audience. Too few – and it's clear the show has been written by a hired gun, but this production signposts them well and gets the balance right.
Previous Marlowe Theatres pantomimes have built a reputation for not simply being a handy way for celebrities to pay off their mortgages (and the theatre to cover its costs for the year). Everyone on and offstage is clearly enjoying themselves. Theatre director Mark Everett said: “We're not interested in simply having famous faces that will guarantee sales. Everyone involved has to be able to do the job”.
This is demonstrated perfectly by leading man John Partridge. Probably best known for playing Christian in EastEnders, when he sang his first number, there were audible gasps from those members of the audience who were obviously unaware of his enviable stage CV.
Kate Quinnell, playing Cinderella, has the right mix of sweetness and pluck, but the stage really belonged to the comedy characters. Stephen Mulhern showed again why he is among the best Buttons working today, while Ben Roddy's Dandini, and the Ugly Sisters of Michael J Batchelor and Ian Smith providing many genuine laugh-out-loud moments; the latter boasts some the most outlandish costumes seen in pantomime for years.
Cinderella uses a mixture of pop songs and original tunes. It's interesting to note that it also includes a song from Hairspray – as do most other pantomimes I've watched this year. Not all of the original songs work, with one duet in particular needing work, but it's a minor quibble and both Quinnell and Partridge do the very best they can with it. This is the only slump in quality however, and things gallop along perfectly well immediately afterwards.
In one case it’s literally galloping – as Cinders climbs into her carriage pulled by a flying horse, it takes to the air and reaches out above the audience. It's a very well-executed effect, and the inclusion of snow falling into the audience makes it feel really quite magical. Some of the children sitting near me believed it was all real – surely the mark of quality.
The real star of this show, however, is the writing. Writer/director/producer Paul Hendy has delivered a script packed with brilliant one liners (some new, some old, some credited to Tim Vine by the cast), clever wordplay, superb visual gags and ingenious banter.
Not even the appearance of the dreaded Lady Gaga medley is enough to strip this panto of the award for slickest of the season.