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Review: Cinderella (Bristol Hippodrome)

Brian Conley and Gok Wan star Bristol's Qdos pantomime

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Brian Conley and Gok Wan
(© Dave Betts Photography)

This is the fourth year of Gok Wan and Brian Conley working together in panto and, by their own admission, they've built up a happy if somewhat unlikely bromance.

This year is no different as they arrive in the South West in tacky festive splendor as part of Qdos' festive offering in Bristol, with Wan starring as the Fairy Gokmother and Conley as Buttons. And while it's impossible to deny that the two have created a few absolutely hilarious double-act moments, really this panto should probably be dubbed The Brian Conley Show.

The hugely experienced TV and stage entertainer is a veteran in making large crowds laugh, and he is absolutely in his element here. Director Kathryn Rooney has made space for him to croon, gurn, offer bouts of physical comedy and generally be the focus of 95 per cent of the show. This may have something to do with the fact that Cinderella is one of the worst plotted of pantos – she's bullied by her sisters, doesn't get to go to the ball, then does, then runs away, then her prince comes to find her and everyone lives happily ever after. So here, Conley is given free rein to fill in all the gaps.

The best moments are between him and Wan, who is a slightly wooden, but ultimately very charming Fairy Godmother. The problem is that, presumably because they've been doing this, or close to this, for a while now, everything feels very scripted. Even the bits where they corpse and things go a little wrong (there's a moment in a ridiculous puppet portaloo where Conley's fake legs 'accidentally' fall off) you can tell that this is the umpteenth time they've done this exact routine. While Wan's giggles are funny, they feel a little forced.

Conley also gets a lot of numbers. He clearly absolutely relishes the opportunity to sing to a crowd of the Hippodrome's size, and while he can bash out the tunes, it all feels a little dad rock. One of his early numbers which falls quite flat – a rendition of "I Gotta Feeling" – definitely feels a bit like you're on a cruise ship. The script is full of references to his past routines (there's a puppet mention, obviously) and he comes on for set piece after set piece for moments that feel straight out of vaudeville.

But that's the point of panto, of course, and while it takes a while to warm up, many of Conley's routines do land very well. His years of entertaining all sorts and in all forms do ensure that his timing is always on point and there's certainly laughs to be had at this Cinderella.

But what of the rest of the overshadowed cast? The ensemble is very tight, with strong choreography from Matthew Cole and the kids from the Bristol School of Dancing are incredibly well drilled. But best by far are the two ugly sisters, Ben Stock and Neal Wright who do the Bristol accent proud and come on with shouts of "Alright me babbers?" at which the local audience falls about. So much is made of Cinders and Buttons' friendship (Buttons is in love with Cinderella) that Scott Mobley's Prince Charming feels like the third wheel. And the decision not to change the fact that Cinderella is so keen to find and marry a prince does feel a little misplaced. It's 2018. Can't we have a Cinders who isn't defined by her marital status?

It's hard to be too down on this Cinderella, especially when there's so much good work and will on offer. But it needs a more even balance between the star's set pieces and the pantomime set pieces. Still, there's undeniable chemistry here between Wan and Conley and it's a treat to watch it in play.