Cinderella and the Beanstalk (Theatre503)

Tom Attenborough directs Sleeping Trees’ Christmas panto with a twist

The cast of Cinderella and the Beanstalk
(© Jack Sain)

If you fancy a family treat that’s a bit different, head to Battersea. Cinderella and the Beanstalk is the most fun you’ll have in a pub this Christmas: it does for pantomime what the Reduced Shakespeare Company did for the Bard, only better. Performers The Sleeping Trees are a talented knockabout trio and they certainly give the old traditions a kicking; only, given the form’s inherently subversive nature, by sending them up they honour them.

James Dunnell-Smith, Joshua George Smith and John Woodburn have the energy of three bulls at a gate and they give the tiny Theatre503 a proper going-over. Designer Simon A Wells‘s flatted walls are playroom-painted with trees and clouds, while on the grassy floor a handful of crates conceal everything from beany hats to a beanstalk. As to what happens within this space, all bets – and gloves – are off.

Don’t expect subtlety, mind, or originality. It’s all in the doing. Three smartly dressed playwrights proudly introduce their epic panto, only to discover that the 40-strong cast they’ve hired has failed to turn up – so they have no choice but to perform it themselves. As the title suggests, it’s a catch-all show that nods to every conceivable seasonal story, hence multiple roles and lightning changes à gogo.

For the main narrative thread (such as it is) Dunnell-Smith becomes a bearded Cinderella, his near-namesake plays the Fairy Godmother and Rumpelstiltskin, and Woodburn is Prince Charming and both of the Ugly Sisters. But that’s not the half of it. Classic characters drop in and out of the action at such a rate that it’s hard to keep up, usually armed with a snappy one-liner, as when an exasperated Pinocchio turns to Peter Pan and says "Oh grow UP, Peter".

Then there’s the music, for which the wide-eyed, much-put-upon one-man-band of Mark Newnham is the show’s unsung hero (except that he does sing, a bit). Who wrote the songs? The writer-performers, I guess; anyway, they’re terrific. You'll hear musicals with weaker scores. Not that you could claim masterpiece status for a show whose best song, a romantic ballad called ‘Love is a Wickes brochure’, celebrates "me and you at B&Q".

Director Tom Attenborough brings it all in at a dizzy pace, abetted by some smart choreography from Polly Bennett. The show’s good, clean fun is daft enough to entertain everyone in the pub audience from boozers to families, and there’s plenty of audience participation. Take the kids or go for a work night out, either way you’ll have a blast. Admittedly I found the two-minute re-enactment of Home Alone a bit tiresome, but don’t mind me. That’s just my bah humbug.

Cinderella and the Beanstalk runs at Theatre503 until 2 January.