Over the years many have tried and failed to force me into some kind of a festive spirit, and the looming panto season does little to instil any particularly joyous feelings in me, so it was with a slightly heavy heart that I trudged through the cold to Newbury’s Corn Exchange for my first panto of the season, Hiss & Boo’s Cinderella.
The gaggle of excited children in the lobby, along with some lovely decorations and panto accessories donned by grinning staff was certainly a good start to the warming of my icy Dickensian heart and as soon as the Fairy Godmother (known as FG) played by Bea Holland bellowed at a stout, grumpy man in the audience “It’s time to release your inner fairy!”, I was sold.
FG welcomes us to the imaginatively named village of Newburybottom and introduces us to Billy Bumpkin (Matthew Grace taking the role for the fourth time running in Newbury, so perhaps his performance is more than a little tired). But there is a real sense of magic and excitement in the air, which continues through a thoroughly entertaining first act.
There are numerous irritating small faults in the performance; some parts of the writing are dire, some performances are lazy (not just Grace), and there are a few awkward pauses while actors wait for their musical cue to enable their "spontaneously" breaking into song. The show is still in its early days, and some parts feel clunky. Holland’s entrances are almost always mistimed with a small pyrotechnic "crack", and there are some truly awful jokes and bits of dialogue that don’t work, but this show still manages to create a fantastic atmosphere, and had me in genuine giggles at multiple moments.
The contemporary references thrown in contribute to the best, and the worst, parts of Phil Willmott’s writing. We witness momentary mickey-takes of Rizzle Kicks, Alesha Dixon, Olly Murs and Bruno Mars which in turn amuse and bemuse the audience, as do mentions of Essex and Chelsea, Gangnam-style sensation Psy and Mick Jagger. Music, both the contemporary and the more traditional, is brilliantly arranged here by Mark Aspinall (composer for the Edinburgh Fringe success FRESHER: The Musical), though occasionally the sound system lets the quality of his work down.
Performances are mixed, with highlights from the Ugly Sisters (terribly written but brilliantly played by Joseph Wicks and Richard Foster-King), and an incredible version of "Hot mambo" by Natalia Campbell (though she is utterly awful in parts). Lowlights include Helena Sowe’s incredibly dull performance in the title role, although she does look the part, and sings her section in a random version of Wicked’s "The Wizard and I" fairly competently.
The best performances come from Jack Beatson in perhaps the smallest part; he shines out as an incredible performer, and also from the astonishingly funny Stephen Kirwan as Prince Charming. His timing, stage presence and characterisation are first-rate, and he is a joy to watch. I also want to marry him, which is definitely the ideal feeling towards a Prince Charming, and perhaps implies that my cold heart has been melted.
Ultimately it’s hard to be completely negative about this production. Yes, it’s too long and needs some re-writes and tightening, but it’s ridiculously good fun, and the cast work their socks off. It also has a nice set, and uses some great theatrical tricks to good effect. The atmosphere is exciting and alive, which is a fun and refreshing thing to be part of.
If you’re after theatrical perfection, you won’t find it in Cinderella, but if you’re open to experiencing a fairy dressed as a baguette-salesman leading an ensemble singing a mash-up of Taylor Swift, the new James Bond theme and Chim Chiminee to a packed house of happy children, this is the show for you.