Andrew Pollard
Lawrence Batley Theatre
Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

Nisa Cole (Cinderella) with young dancers Credit: Andrew Billington
Richard Hand (Kylie), Natasha Magigi (The Baroness) and Michael Hugo (Miley) Credit: Andrew Billington
Stephanie Hackett (Dandini) and Gareth Cassidy (Buttons) Credit: Andrew Billington

The enduringly popular story of Cinderella will be well-represented over the Christmas period with pantomime versions being performed in towns and cities across the country, including York, Derby, Newbury, and—of course—Huddersfield. Surprisingly, this is the first professional pantomime to be staged at the Lawrence Batley Theatre since it opened its doors in 1994. On the basis of last night’s performance, I hope this marks the beginning of a long-running tradition.

Andrew Pollard’s script is pleasingly traditional for the most part, but also offers some fresh twists on the material. After the death of her father, Cinderella (Nisa Cole) is turned into a domestic drudge by her wicked stepmother, the Baroness (Natasha Magigi), and two facially challenged stepsisters, Miley (Michael Hugo) and Kylie (Richard Hand). However, our heroine is not the passive non-entity that we sometimes see, but rather a lively, funny and charming clutz.

Similarly, Prince Charming (Adam Barlow) is not a humourless cardboard cut-out, but rather an affable if somewhat awkward chap who finds it difficult speaking to women. He is helped in this regard by Dandini (Stephanie Hackett)—a woman named Danielle in disguise—who helps him to loosen up and become more assertive.

In addition to the classic rags-to-riches tale, Pollard gives us all the panto hallmarks—"It’s behind you!" and "Oh yes it is!"—that we have grown to expect over the years. There is also an inventive slapstick scene involving the Ugly Sisters' pre-ball bath which manages to combine synchronised swimming with allusions to Jaws (1975) and Titanic (1997).

The whole cast act their socks off, delivering committed and energetic performances. Nisa Cole is hugely likeable as Cinderella, and demonstrates a real flair for song and dance. As Prince Charming, Adam Barlow is amusingly awkward when trying to flirt with women and suitably cringe-inducing in his attempts to be cool.

Natasha Magigi excels in her two roles. As the Fairy Godmother, she delivers a performance filled with exuberance and joie de vivre, and she is even better as the Baroness, goading the audience with her withering put-downs. Indeed, I was slightly taken aback when she described the pensioners in the audience as “coffin-dodgers”.

Michael Hugo and Richard Hand are riotously funny as Cinderella’s deluded stepsisters, shamelessly playing up to the audience at every opportunity. At times, they reminded me of the grotesque characters who populate Royston Vasey in the cult BBC comedy series League of Gentlemen. Their rendition of "I Know Him So Well"—the song made famous by Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson—provides one of the evening’s undoubted highlights.

As Buttons, Gareth Cassidy scores some of the show’s biggest laughs, demonstrating fine comic timing and a highly elastic face. Equally impressive is Stephanie Hackett as Danielle/Dandini, who has great fun as the gender confused Danielle/Dandini and gets to send up the conventions of male and female behaviour.

Mark Walters’s set designs are the quintessence of pantomime, creating a brightly-coloured fantasy world. The costumes are similarly eye-catching, particularly the Ugly Sisters’ wide range of mind-boggling outfits.

The evening is punctuated with an eclectic mixture of well-sung chart hits, including Abba’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!", Queen’s “Somebody to Love” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”. A particular highlight is the three villains’ rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, which showcases Natasha Magigi’s marvellous voice.

At the risk of being booed, I have some caveats about the production. Occasionally, some of the innuendos and double-entendres made me feel uncomfortable. For the most part, the production avoids the un-PC humour that mars other pantomimes, but there were a few slip-ups. Also, there were a few sticky moments towards the beginning of the show where Buttons' jokes failed to land.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Cinderella, as did the audience who booed, clapped and cheered in all the right places. Whereas some pantomimes seem thrown together, Joyce Branagh’s production feels like it’s been lovingly crafted by people with a genuine fondness for this distinctly British tradition.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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