Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Review by Sam Waite
It’s the most wonderful time of the year for anyone looking for a fun show to bring the family to, as Panto Season is in full swing. For the benefit of the two people who don’t know what this means - when it's cold outside, theatregoers from across the land gather inside to watch much-loved fairy tales and folk stories reimagined with modern twists, pop-culture references aplenty and the grand tradition of the Panto Dame. Think a really good (or sometimes brilliantly bad) RuPaul’s Drag Race acting challenge.
This new version of Cinderella – written by award-winner Leo Butler and Stratford panto veteran Robert Hyman – opens in the faraway and ancient land of Stratford East-gypt, where Queen Cleopatra and her daughters, Chrishell and Amanza, hoard the country’s gold and generally treat everyone like something they’ve stepped in. I’d like to thank the mother of a family I spoke with on the train after for clueing me in that the daughters’ names are a Selling Sunset reference, one of many contemporary references is this long-ago queendom. Cinderella herself, in a refreshing change of pace, was left on Cleo’s doorstep with a brief note, “From Barking Mad, xx.”
In the title role, Gracie McGonigal (recently seen at the National for The Crucible) is every bit as charming as you’d hope. Her comedic timing is spot on, and her vocals are powerful and youthful, immediately evoking the bold but gentle nature of the character. In the dual role of Sphinx, Cinderella’s feline friend and confidante, and the magical hysterical Fairy Godmummy, Kathryn Bond repeatedly steals the show with exquisite comedy that feels off-the-cuff and unplanned even while too precise to be anything but fully rehearsed. Her song as the Godmummy (yess, the kind with bandages) and a brief role as a smelly old soothsayer demonstrate her vocal and comedic range, with it not initially dawning on me that this was the same performer.
The story, as re-worked by Leo Butler, is thankfully worthy of the stellar actors. Here, the traditional ball and lost slipper and swapped out for a nefarious scheme by Caesar (of the Roman Empire of Tooting) first to have Marc Anthony marry Cinderella upon finding her list of plans for a better world, then joining forces with Cleopatra to marry Anthony off to one of her daughters. Cinderella, she claims, simply does not exist. Of course, she and Marc Anthony meet and she, hiding her identity, finds out that he’s immediately smitten with the woman who wrote such a list.
From here the beats largely play out as in other Cinderella stories but, with the flood of adaptations in recent years,I was happy to see some innovation with the set-up and follow-through. Equally, Robert Hyman’s songs are at worst enjoyable and at best an utter delight – moments like Cinderella and her Prince-to-be bonding through shared visions of a better world and Cleopatra’s audience with “the plebs” (us) being elevated both comedically and dramatically under his assured guidance.
As our Prince Charming, Marc Anthony of Tooting, Wesley Bozonga leans into the London lad aesthetic and mannerisms with fantastic results. His dialogue is peppered with the odd “allow it”, “fam”, and the like, and when he is called on to ham up his horror at being paired with the spoiled, and apparently non-too-beautiful, princesses he twists his face into a mask of horror that made me repeatedly cackle. Alex Wadham also has fun as Caesar, often too busy mooning over his ex, Cleopatra, to be of any real use as a villain or accomplice, but always keeping the laughs coming.
Of course, no panto is complete without the baddies, here played so well that people often forgot they were supposed to be booing and had to awkwardly shift mid-applause. Often seen as drag icon Crayola the Queen, Gigi Zahir brings the regal nature of a genuine queen to Cleo, while managing to be hysterical in both mannerisms and dialogue. A staple of panto is bawdy jokes for the grown-ups in the audience, and some of the more notable ones come from Zahir. Micah Holmes and Tendai Rinomhota prove to be a well-matched pair as the scheming stepsisters, selling their jokes both as a pair and as individuals, and having some fun moments in the aisles terrorising the crowd. They were having a blasé, and so were we as a result.
Helmed by director Eva Sampson, this new and exciting version of Cinderella is an absolute joy from start to finish. Sampson has brought out a set of excellent performances and clearly understands what makes this kind of family entertainment work – all the requisite “it’s behind you” and “oh no it’s not” moments, plus a truly fun audience-participation number felt fresh and new under her sure-footed direction. The sets and costumes, both by Charlotte Espiner, were impressively pulled together – balancing the modern Stratford elements with the Ancient Egyptian touches without pulling too far in either direction, and presenting sturdy set-pieces that seem like they would last the test of time without overwhelming the show’s production budget.
Lighting by Gillian Tan and sound design by Helen Skiera help to create an even more delicate balance, keeping us involved and engaged in this fictional world while also allowing the fourth wall breaks that define pantomime productions to not feel out of place.
If you want to have yourself a merry little Christmas, a good start would be to treat yourself and the family to an evening at this wonderfully done show. Even as you slip a sable under the tree, you may find that all you and the kids want for Christmas is another trip to Stratford East where the cast and crew truly are giving us their hearts.
Cinderella plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 7th January 2023. Tickets from www.stratfordeast.com
Photos by The Other Richard