The Old Vic’s Christmas pantomime - the world premiere of Stephen Fry’s new version of Cinderella – opened last night (13 December 2007, previews from 4 December) after being delayed by five days due to an unwell Sandi Toksvig in the Narrator role (See News, 10 Dec 2007).

This is the third consecutive year of Christmas pantomimes at the Old Vic, after the success of the past two seasons of Aladdin starring Ian McKellen as panto dame Widow Twankey. Cinderella marks the pantomime writing debut for actor, comedian, novelist and director Stephen Fry, who has “cheekily updated” the fairytale for the 21st century (See News, 22 Oct 2007). It features songs by film composer Anne Dudley (who won an Oscar for The Full Monty) and is directed by Fiona Laird.

In addition to Toksvig, the cast also features Pauline Collins (as the Fairy Godmother), Madeleine Worrall (Cinderella), Joseph Millson (Prince Charming), Paul Keating (Buttons), Debbie Chazen (the Queen), and Hal Fowler and Mark Lockyer (the Ugly Sisters). The production is designed by Stephen Brimson-Lewis and choreographed by Francesca Jaynes, with lighting by Tim Mitchell, musical supervision by Neil McArthur, orchestrations by Steven Edis and Neil McArthur, musical direction by Michael Haslam, and sound by Nick Lidster and Terry Jardine for Autograph.

Times have changed. Hailed as “the first openly gay panto”, Fry’s new version of the classic story has had all the first night critics taking some issue with the “smart, knowing” writing that “puts the ‘rude’ in ‘erudite’” – not unlike Jim Davidson’s Sinderella a few years ago. Leaving that aside, the pantomime features the “neat” pairing of Paul Keating’s “tight-trousered” Buttons with Oliver Chopping's Dandini in perhaps the West End’s first-ever staged civil partnership, which set tongues a-wagging. But even if the show “seems less like family entertainment than the filthiest gay cabaret in town”, it’s still a hot ticket with plenty of talent in the cast – notably, Madeleine Worrall’s “sweet-natured” Cinderella, Joseph Millson's “heart-throb hunk of a Prince” and Pauline Collins’ “delightful” Fairy Godmother.

  • Michael Coveney on (three stars) - “To say that Stephen Fry’s new version of Cinderella at the Old Vic is openly gay is to understate the case … The proceedings are supervised by Sandi Toksvig as a pipe-smoking narrator descending from the heavens in a leather armchair, imbued with the voice of Fry’s aromatic balsam and bristling with Radio Four-style asides (she boasts how, in a BBC Dream, she once gave her Bottom to John Humphreys’ Snout). Her function reveals the Fry approach to pantomime, which is one of dirty-minded metropolitan cynicism … The two Ugly Sisters, Dolce and Gabbana (Mark Lockyer and Hal Fowler), are energetically amusing but lazily undifferentiated in character. The transformation scene is botched – the pumpkin just inflates to become a bigger pumpkin … Still, Anne Dudley’s songs, with Fry’s unfailingly literate lyrics, are pleasurably fresh and well despatched. Joseph Millson is a suitably erect Prince Charming, and there is a lovely dipsomaniac cameo from Penny Layden as the Queen. It’s overall a better show than the Barbican’s pantomime, but offers much more to buffs and poufs than to Dads and kids.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Even though Stephen Fry is a man of many parts, I'm not sure he'd be my first choice to write a panto and his script for the Old Vic Cinderella is, as you might expect, smart, knowing, self-referential and layered with innuendo. Fortunately, it has just enough of the traditional ingredients to keep young audiences happy, though at times it's a close thing … This must, in fact, outside the club circuit, be the first openly gay panto. It leads to a neat pairing-off of Buttons with the Prince's aide, Dandini. I also enjoyed all the old Carry On jokes on the lines of ‘I expect you've got a little package’, to which someone adds ‘Not from where I'm standing’. But this panto overplays its hand when five- and six-year-olds are invited on stage and informed, as a hamper is unpacked for a cod-cooking scene, ‘This is Buttons' favourite - gentlemen's relish’. Since it plays around with the form so much, this is more a panto for sophisticated grown-ups than the very young … Paul Keating's tight-trousered Buttons also comes across as a somewhat more robust version of Julian Clary. And Mark Lockyer and Hal Fowler as the Ugly Sisters, Dolce and Gabbana, make the most of every opportunity.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “The Old Vic's new panto, written by Stephen Fry, is billed as a ‘modern mischievous take on Cinderella’. What this means in practice is that there are many moments when the show seems less like family entertainment than the filthiest gay cabaret in town. I can just about cope with Buttons coming out as gay and falling for Dandini, also played by a male actor, and, of course, slightly risqué jokes have always been a part of panto. They go over the heads of the young children in the audience … As well as the filth, there are also those moments when Fry can't resist showing off what a hugely clever fellow he is … This is surely the only pantomime in history to have combined salacious bottom jokes with insufferable smart-alecry … For my taste Mark Lockyer and Hal Fowler are too grotesque and sex-obsessed as the Ugly Sisters to be truly funny, and Debbie Chazen as their stepmother is even worse. Madeleine Worrall is a sweet-natured Cinders, however, Paul Keating is child-friendly as Buttons, Pauline Collins is a delightful Fairy Godmother and Joseph Millson is a charismatic Prince Charming.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The best and serious novelty in this somewhat old-fashioned Cinderella is the emergence of Paul Keating's lovelorn Buttons as a half-open, gay young man, into dress design and domesticity, who forever teeters on the verge of coming out to Madeleine Worrall's sexually unsophisticated, not very passionate Cinderella. In the panto's best, humorous moments they both sing and dream of a tall, dark stranger. The pair of them pursue parallel romances, when they manage to escape slaving in the basement kitchen where two white puppet mice threaten to steal the limelight. Joseph Millson's handsome Prince succumbs to love at first sight when he glimpses Cinderella at a ball to choose the Prince's wife. Meanwhile, Oliver Chopping's Dandini, the Prince's aide de camp gazes transfixed at Keating's wistful Buttons and after a little mutual admiration ends up kneeling - quite respectably - asking for his hand, presumably in a civil partnership … Stephen Fry and wit are supposed to be long-term companions, but it now looks and sounds as if they are undergoing a trial separation, with Fry the bereft party … Song and dance joviality reign supreme, but this is Fry well under par.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent - “I think that Fry missed a trick here. His script is playfully determined to put the ‘rude’ in ‘erudite’ and there's a lot of rather leaden larkiness … His role here is purely authorial, though ‘impurely’ might put it better, for his script, premiered in Fiona Laird's garish, unsympathetic production, is a non-stop smut factory. Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that Buttons and Dandini get it together, and I quite liked the shower scene involving Joseph Millson's heart-throb hunk of a Prince. But there's a difference between good, clean, relevant filth (as when Mark Lockyer's Ugly Sister compliments the Prince on the way he hold his balls) and relentless, gratingly contrived gags about, say, vibrators and dildos (the Stepmother is ‘left to her own devices’) … Pauline Collins is a charming delight as an East End Fairy Godmother … Nice, droll Sandi Toksvig is womanhood's answer to Stephen Fry as the narrator … The Ugly Sisters are too lewd to be amusing; the songs and choreography are frighteningly feeble … Isn't that strange for a show which promised us lots of ‘interactivity’, but which turns out to be so essentially soulless that it could have been written by a cannily programmed computer.”

    - by Tom Atkins