Alan McHugh with additional material by Matt Slack and the Grumbleweeds
The most popular of all pantomime titles, Cinderella first hit the pantomime stage back in 1804. Since then, the Birmingham Hippodrome has presented the tale ten times, with this year's production reviving past traditions at the venue wherein the Hippodrome received the London Palladium's production.
When Qdos Entertainment revived pantomime at the Palladium in 2016, Cinderella was its title of choice with Paul O'Grady and Julian Clary the stars of the show. Fast Forward to 2017 and the Birmingham Hippodrome's production captures much of the Palladium's essence with Beverley Knight and Danny Mac at the helm.
In her pantomime debut, Knight is a glorious Fairy Godmother. Full of soul, she seeks to assist Cinderella find her Happy Ever After and enters into the spirit of pantomime, often being reminded of her celebrity stardom.
This year's Hippodrome pantomime is noticeably more self-reflexive than previous years', with Birmingham favourite Matt Slack back as Buttons and frequently referring to the top of the bill by their actual, rather than character, names.
Comedy comes from the framing of pantomime and acknowledgement of the multi-layered nature of roles as the performers channel their personas through their characters. But so frequent a reference does become tiresome after a while and almost dispenses with the notion of establishing a land of make-believe.
Slack's Buttons is his fifth Comic for the Hippodrome, which is celebrated with a short patter song in his opening spot listing all the previous roles he's played. A hit with the crowd, Slack has already been announced as Smee in next year's pantomime Peter Pan and it is easy to see why the Birmingham audience demands his return. His comic timing and physicality is second to none, with Slack's ability to lead the songsheet a real lesson in the art of pantomime.
Having achieved adoration through Strictly Come Dancing, Danny Mac's Prince Charming is equally as popular with the crowd, none more so than in act two's opening number in which he treats the audience to his dancing skills. The production plays greatly upon his Strictly credentials and a particular highlight sees his Prince and Slack's Buttons engage in a comedy dance-off.
A tale with romance at its core, this Cinderella focuses little on love with Suzanne Shaw occupying a small place in the narrative and delivering her function as and when necessary. Just as in the Palladium's production, Cinderella's kindness is never tested, leaving one to question the reason for support from her Fairy Godmother and lessening the title's moral.
Possessing the most sublime costumes in all of Pantoland, Ceri Dupree and David Dale look spectacular as the Ugly Sisters, but have very little to do in the way of villainy. Indeed, 2017's production offers few chances to boo the Villains and as a result, the piece does at times feel a little distant.
Ensuring that the pantomime staples are ticked off, the Grumbleweeds appear in many a front cloth, but as the Broker's Men the audience is left somewhat confused as to their role in proceedings. Broker's Men are virtually extinct in Pantoland and, with very little explanation as to their vocation, an underdeveloped subplot in which they seek the Ugly Sisters' unpaid taxes appears superfluous and pure padding.
Gary Watson's Dandini puts in sterling effort to make the role memorable and impactful, but sadly this year's Hippodrome pantomime has lost its bespoke feel and seems to have had to sacrifice a great deal to shoehorn in the Palladium's production.
Commercial theatre thrives on transfers and indeed pantomime is no different with productions rotating around regional venues year-on-year to ensure costs are recuperated. However, if the Birmingham Hippodrome is to retain its crown as one of the best pantomimes in the country, more needs to be done to give it that special something and afford it the creative innovation and uniqueness it deserves.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen