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Cinderella (Bishop's Stortford, Rhodes Centre)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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You can tweak a traditional pantomime stories until a well-shaped favourite seems to be almost deformed. On the other hand, you can refresh it with just the right proportion of novelties. So Phil Dale's take on Cinderella makes the Wicked Stepmother into the evil sister of the Fairy Godmother; we meet Prince Charming's father, the King of France; and Cinderella goes to the ball... I won't spoil the effect by telling you the exact mode of conveyance, but silver coaches and miniature ponies certainly aren't involved.

As is only proper, we begin in Fairyland with the initial confrontation between the forces of good and evil setting out the battleground on which the heroine's apparently so-hopeless search for happiness will be played out. Then we're in Pais, where a restless Prince Charming (Ben Hawkins) has returned from oversea travel (and, one gathers, also a considerable sowing of the proverbial wild oats). So the tension to the build-up to the first proper appearance of the title character is considerable.

When we meet Cinderella in the forest, Duncan Rutherford's score gives Grace Wheeler a charming duet with some feathered friends, and we warm immediately to her personality. Back at Hardup Hall, her Stepmother (Jeanne Stacey) eggs on as frightful and fractious a pair of Ugly Sisters as you would hope never to encounter on a dark night. Jay Brown's Fatima (who lives up to the first syllable of her name) and Jack Downey's lankily vicious Fanny are enough to give anyone unfortunate enough to have to share a home with them nightmares.

Even, one feels, Daniel James' chirpy Buttons. James gets on the audience's right side from his firs entrance and turns what was, at the performance I saw, a wardrobe malfunction into a comedy routine in its own right. On the subject of comedy routines, the Brown-Downey variation of The Great British Bake-Off is self-raising in its own right. Our old friend "The twelve days of Christmas" later makes an appearance in send-up guise.

Somehow the stage at the Rhodes Centre seems to have expanded since last year's pantomime and this allows for some effective puppetry as well as Katie Barker-Dale's attractive choreography. Julia Dale's costumes (is this a family affair, I wonder?) look fresh and are attractively coloured. Reuben Lemer and Phil Childs are the hard-working musicians.


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