Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Cinderella

Michael Harrison, music and lyrics by Olly Ashmore
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(2009)

Production photo

As I was leaving the theatre after the press night of Cinderella, I overheard someone say, "You know, underneath all that technology, this is a traditional panto."

He was right and he was wrong. Yes, there is a lot of technology and yes, it is a traditional panto, but what he said suggests that somehow the two things are separate, but in fact they're not. Panto has always used the latest technology, and I'm not just talking about 21st or even 20th century pantos. In the first half of the nineteenth century pantomimes were using dioramas which gave the impression that performers who were actually standing still on stage were moving through a huge landscape - in 1823 Drury Lane paid the fabulous sum of £1,380 for its diorama- and there were even aerial dioramas. In 1823 Covent Garden had two characters in a hot air balloon which looked as though it was rising into the sky although it didn't actually move. As early as 1804 Sadler's Wells rebuilt the stage so that it could be flooded and in 1829 Covent Garden had a real waterfall on stage. In fact, theatres vied with each other to see which could produce the most spectacular effects.

So, although Cinderella has some spectacular effects - the Fairy Godmother being flown over the audience (and no, you can't see how it's done: not a wire in sight!) and a fantastic animatronic raven - they are very much in keeping with the traditional nature of the rest of the show.

The story does take centre-stage and there are brief (and they are pretty brief: I remember some pantos in the seventies when the principals' own material lasted longer than the story) interludes where principals can show off their particular skills . Clive Webb does some very impressive illusions, Danny Adams shows off his comic physicality, and the two together (along with an unnamed in the programme stooge who is so good he should be credited) give us the sloshiest slosh scene I have ever seen, as well as some comic fire-eating that looked very dangerous but clearly (hopefully!) wasn't.

Chris Hayward as Baroness Rita (Cinders' step-mother who is not wicked: that's left to the Uglies, Steve Arnott and Phil Corbitt) gets to show off her huge range of costumes, each more outrageous than the last and all designed and made by Hayward, and to show (s)he can do a mean SuBo impression. Matt Rawle (Prince Charming) and David Ducasse (Dandini) show off their vocal talents and Donna Steele does a great Jane Horrocks-as-Bubbles as the Fairy Godmother who has just finished her training and is on her first job.

Having two excellent comics in Webb and Adams, together with a comic fairy and dame, means that the Uglies can concentrate on being thoroughly nasty, which Arnott and Corbitt do with great gusto while retaining enough comedy to stop them being too frightening for the youngest members of the audience.

I always feel that the part of principal girl is probably the most thankless one in panto, especially when played straight as the sweet innocent. Emmerdale's Roxanne Pallett plays Cinderella with great energy and just a touch of feistiness, so she was far from the colourless "pretty thing" (although very definitely pretty) that we see too often.

The second most thankless is probably the chorus. Some terrific dancing here from a very good looking set of chorus boys and girls who make the most of what they've got to do, as do the babes from Marron Theatre Arts who, to be honest, this year seemed a little under-used. But so much to fit in: so little time!

And there are some things missing: there is no take-off scene so we didn't get to shout "He's behind you!" and there was just one chance (kept very short) for us to join in "Oh yes it is! Oh no its isn't!", but so much is packed into the two hours and twenty minutes (including interval) that it didn't really matter. You can't include everything and writer/director/producer Michael Harrison wisely left us wanting more.

I confess that, when I heard (at last year's show) that Webb and Adams would be returning for a fifth year in succession, I thought that Harrison was pushing it a bit. Surely the Newcastle audience would be wanting a change by now? I was wrong. The cheers and laughter that greeted their first entrances was sign enough of their popularity and they only had to say the first couple of lines of a regular gag for the audience to howl with laughter. Jokes in shorthand!

They're back next year in Robin Hood and when they mentioned this at the curtain call, the audience went mad. So Mr Harrison: you were right and I was wrong.

The Theatre Royal claims that theirs is the "best panto in the country" and, although one's first reaction is to think, "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?", I have to say that it will take something very special indeed to be better.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan