Review - Soho Cinders at the Charing Cross Theatre
Just as Stiles and Drewe's most internationally successful musical collaboration Mary Poppins, originally premiered in 2004, has returned to the West End (for which they provided both new songs and rewrites to the original Sherman Brothers film score), this altogether more modest but no less delightful musical from the same composer-lyricist team that was first seen in 2011 is also now back in town.
And it couldn't be more welcome. Like Mary Poppins, it is a redemptive kind of fairytale, but while the titular nanny of that show offers healing to a dysfunctional family, in Soho Cinders the healing comes from within, as characters confront their true selves and true love conquers fear and dishonesty.
It's a message for today, wrapped up in a score by the prolific George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (lyrics) that is one of their freshest, wittiest and most heartfelt. As the title suggests, it relocates the Cinderella fable to contemporary Soho, where Prince Charming is James Prince - working to get elected as Mayor of London, who has a loyal female fiancée at his side (as well as an aggressive and duplicitous campaign manager), but is having a secret affair with a laundrette worker (and part-time male companion) called Robbie. Meanwhile, Prince's principal campaign donor Lord Bellingham also happens to have desires for young Robbie, who he has previously hired for company, and wants to form a more lasting alliance with.
Besides the varied and vivacious score, which has some of Stiles' most insistently tuneful melodies and Drewe's sharpest and funniest lyrics, the show is cleverly driven by Drewe and Elliot Davis's smart book, which adds layers of intrigue, conflict and drama to how it plays out.
While others from Vivian Ellis (the 1929 West End musical Mr Cinders), Rodgers and Hammerstein (in a television musical broadcast live in 1957, where it was seen by over 100 million people and subsequently adapted for the theatrical stage) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (in a new version that was workshopped earlier this year) have rewritten the Cinderella tale in a modern musical idiom, Soho Cinders takes the least conventional but most compelling approach: to stage it is a behind-the-scenes saga set in the world of local politics. It reminded me at times of Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey's The Fix, a contemporary fable of an American political dynasty seeking the American presidency.
The stakes are duly and convincingly amplified, and director Will Keith's production, based on an earlier one he also staged at the Union Theatre in 2016 and featuring some of the same cast, has an appealing sincerity and low-budget charm.
Luke Bayer, who was the alternate Jamie in the original West End company of Everybody's Talking About Jamie, is a tender, warm-hearted delight as Robbie, while Michaela Stern (who also co-produces) and Natalie Harman reprise their broad comic performances as his step-sisters to hilarious effect. It's a pleasure to see and hear the show again.
Soho Cinders tickets are available now.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography