United Kingdom Cinderella (pantomime written for the stage by Will Brenton and directed by George Wood): Phoenix Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, 14.12.2019. (JB)
Choreographer – Lynne Thomas
Musical director – Steve Clark
Musical arranger – Steve Power
Lighting designer – Jamie Corbidge
Costume designer – Mark Walters
Video designer – Nina Dunn
Fairy Godmother – Cat Sandion
Cinderella – Grace Chapman
Baroness Hardup (stepmother) – Katie Cameron
Buttons – Tim Vine
Tess (stepsister) – Jason Marc-Williams
Claudia (stepsister) – Alistair Barron
Dandini – Ore Oduba
Prince – James Bisp
Ensemble – James Ashton
Happy days are here again says a bad old song of yesteryear. But we are attached to yesteryear (nostalgia?) and even the badness of that repertory that doesn’t leave our memories, which takes us straight into the art of camp. So would passengers please fasten their seatbelts. Except at the pantomime, there is also the all-together invocation.
The all-together element was well catered for in Croydon’s Fairfield Halls Cinderella with comedian Tim Vine as Buttons/Master of Ceremonies, who hauled a group of preselected small children onto the stage and with great charm, coaxed them into their first lesson of stardom. Vine has more stage presence than all the other actors put together. That predictably brought out the actor in the half dozen chosen aspirants. Even Buttons looked nonplussed when he asked a nine-year old what he wanted for Christmas, and the boy’s cool answer was a Ferrari. That got the best laugh of the evening.
The publicity says London’s Family Friendly Pantomime. But the staging seemed to be aimed at an audience of screaming teenagers of whom there were none present in the hall.
The Saturday matinee hall was full to the rafters – all 1801 seats – but there were more grandparents than grandchildren. I am in the second-childhood grandparent age bracket myself, so I ought to have felt at home. But I didn’t. And that – as I could hear from snippets of conversation after the show – was for the same reason as they were disappointed. I had gone to the pantomime in the hope of a delightful, if waspish trip down memory lane, but the only thing I was able to join in with was ‘Happy Birthday to You’.
For the rest we had our eardrums blasted out of existence by an excessively over-amplified Big Band tradition, and with the actors/singers contact microphones turned low. The singers’ diction was clearly projected when you could hear it over the irritatingly raucous band. A word of praise for the harpist who managed to keep their instrument in tune all through this infernal row. In the first part of the show Tim Vine was for ever starting out on an accompanied song, but abandoning it before he had finished the first phrase. That’s comic the first and second time. but after that the joke wears thin.
Ore Oduba (Dandini – the Prince’s valet) was easily the best dancer on the stage. He was the winner of the fourteenth series of Strictly Come Dancing. We would like to have seen a great deal more of his fine dancing and it is puzzling to try to understand why choreographer, Lynne Thomas had not offered him more. Watch the Ore Oduba name. He sets the whole stage on fire with his balletic energy. As well as his nonchalance. Oduba also has a fine ringing baritone speaking voice and in the scene where he takes over from his master as the Prince, he takes over very impressively.
The two leading ladies – Cat Sandion as Fairy Godmother and Grace Chapman as Cinders – were both waifs of Twiggy dimensions and gripped the audience’s attention in those admirable roles of diminished responsibilities. They convincingly made virtue out of necessity.
The role of the wicked stepmother is sometimes cut in pantomime. Fairfield Halls were right to retain her as the leading villain. Katie Cameron, who is American, arrives always to the back rows of the vast hall with her listen-or-else commanding voice. She also has the most impressive costumes of the evening courtesy of Mark Walters.
Mark is also responsible for the set design. He is much in demand at pantomime season with over forty sets to his name. I can see why. He works well with lighting designer, Jamie Corbidge, who for my taste sometimes oversteps the mark with strobe lighting. These can so easily become a gimmick. The set relies on projections which were timed beautifully with the music. Rivers and waterfalls had just the right niche between reality and pantomime make-believe. We go to the pantomime with hopes of being deceived and Mark Walters provides for this appetite. The inverted commas clip magically round the various deceptions.
For costume extravagance, Mark Williams pulled out all the stops for the Ugly Sisters – Jason Marc-Williams as Tess and Alistair Barron as Claudia. The rough and tumble of these roles never fails to delight younger audiences.
James Bisp is tall and handsome and with the most fetching smile you ever saw. That trinity of attributes makes him the ideal Prince. He moves as though floating through air – an added touch to a fine stage presence. Gentlemanly charm if ever there was.
Although he was only an ensemble player, James Ashton, who is training with Ballet Rambert, stood out with the easy surety of his every movement. Watch that name.
I confess that did not get what I expected from this pantomime. I recognise that it is a mistake to go to any theatre performance with preconceived notions as to how things should be done. Though it might not seem so, I try not to do this, but I am attached to the pantomime tradition where this one had elements missing. My spy network tells me that I should take myself to Stratford East or the Hackney Empire where the traditions are held sacred. Let’s see. I well recall the impressive Victorian gold, ornate Empire near the school where I did my first teaching practice in the late 1950s and the local lads threatening me with knives. Gertrude Collins, my excellent tutor at the Institute for Education, was horrified, and said she would move me to a safer school. I asked her not to. I had started to enjoy my young charges. We shared a similar sense of humour. I even got them to sing in tune, if not exactly to put all the knives away.