It's that time of year - oh yes it is! The time of year being the panto season with its attendant trappings of gaudy costumes, ludicrous plots, men dressed up as women, women dressed as men, general mahem and stale jokes that came out of the ark. Well, that's usually the case, but not quite here. Thanks to the talents of Stephen Fry (who wrote the book and lyrics) this version of Cinderella is not quite the traditional version. But it's not as radical as it's been cracked up to be either.
Of course, panto has to follow some basic rules. Without them the genre would leave the audience even more confused than the actors who have to swap their highbrow roles for the absurdity of panto during the festive season. Fry hasn't abandoned the golden rules of panto, he's merely tinkered with them and made it a little more, well, adult. There's still the customary calling out that the audience have to do, for example when the word 'cake' is mentioned, or when someone appears behind Buttons, one of the central characters in 'Cinderella'.
To help bewildered old folk and the bemused young folk, Fry opts for the device of a narrator, in the diminutive form of Sandi Toksvig, to guide us through what is really a pretty simple and generally well-known plot. Toksvig is a warm and affable narrator if ever there was one, and throws in a number of gags for good measure as we progress through the story. She also copes ably with a cookery scene during the second half where two junior audience participants engage in an attempt to conjure up a gastronomic extravaganza. Toksvig's talents really show through here because she has the knack of add-libbing, which doesn't belittle the children involved, but nevertheless amuses the adults. For example, when assembling the ingredients for the cookery piece, she comments that you can get 20 pork chops for a pound at Iceland (that will probably only mean much to UK readers, I suspect).
What Fry has done is to recognise what most of us knew was there in 'Cinderella' all along and make it explicit. So, Buttons is a young gay man interested in frocks, make up etc - you get the picture. I doubt that all gay men will be uniformly comfortable with the implication that they spend their time swanning round the perfume counter and millenery department of John Lewis's. Still, it is panto season, so let's not dwell on things PC.
As you might expect from The Old Vic, the set here is a cut above the run-of-the-mill pantos. Cinderella's dainty home glides out to the front of the stage, and retreats almost to the other side of the Thames when not required. And the ballroom scene is a suitably glitzy setting for the meeting between Cinders and Prince Charming at the 'reality ball'.
In terms of the cast, the show-stealers are the mice - Oh yes they are! Several puppet white mice join in the songs, and are duly turned into footman by the Fairy Godmother. They also turn up their noses at the stale cheese they're offered (riddled with maggots apparently) and who can blame them?
As for the human cast, Buttons is played with good natured, boy next door charm by Paul Keating, and Worral delivers a whistful Cinders with an amusing sense of acceptance of her lot in life. Pauline Collins' Fairy Godmother could hail from Bermondsey or the East End if her accent is anything to go by, but her appearance lifted the show significantly with her down-to-earth directness.
If you're looking to entertain the kids this Christmas, I'd think carefully before venturing to The Old Vic. 'Cinderella' is full of double entendres and some use of language that is pretty explicit. For example, there are references to crabs, anus, vagina, bollocks, balls and an 'insistent cock' (referring to the kind that crows in the morning). Great for the adults of course, but maybe not if you have children old enough to be inquisitive and want to know why the adult members of the audience are rolling about in hysterics. But if you're one of those who don't have any offspring to drag along, you'll have a fine time with Fry's script and the overall quality of the production.
What the critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Fry's dullish, modestly amusing and rather laborious retelling of the ancient fairytale, for which he has written unamusing lyrics for 10 songs to Anne Dudley's unmemorable music." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Essentially soulless." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Fortunately it has just enough of the traditional ingredients to keep young audiences happy, though at times it's a close thing." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "[Stephen Fry's] adapted Cinderella for the more educated kids, the sillier sort of adult and, given what ensues between Buttons and Dandini, London’s good-natured gay world."