Cinderella

Mike Kenny, additional lyrics by Ivan Stott, music by Rob Hiley
Octagon Theatre Bolton
Octagon Theatre Bolton

Cinderella and the Rats Credit: Richard Davenport
Lucy Faint as Cinderella Credit: Richard Davenport
Alexander Bean as The Prince Credit: Richard Davenport

There will be a lot of Cinderellas around the UK over the next few weeks, but the Octagon's offering is a long way from a family panto, even though it shares most of the same story and characters.

In fact, the important aspects of the story in Mike Kenny's adaptation are very down-to-earth and harshly realistic—not the talking rats, obviously, but the deaths of parents and the fear of being left helpless with an unloving step family are quite clear and real. Even the rats aren't made into more socially-acceptable vermin as in Disney's version, but they are still Cinderella's well-meaning, encouraging friends and they speak in the same staccato baby-talk as in Disney.

In fact, the rats are our narrators who tell us at the start that Cinderella has left to join the Prince at the palace, then they enact the story of how it all happened. The idea of a group of people acting out a story as a childish game has become a theatrical standard now, but it still works well here, providing a nice frame for the story.

Lucy Faint's Cinderella isn't a princess-in-waiting but a young girl who is as confused by the cruelty of her stepmother (Felicity Sparks) as she is by the attentions of the Prince—she only wanted to go to the ball to dance, not to find a husband. The behaviour of stepsisters Thisun (Anne O'Riordan) and Thatun (Alicia McKenzie) is more childish cruelty, following their mother's lead, than anything more sinister, although it is nudged to comic extremes.

This telling of the story has no magic, so there is no fairy godmother: just Cinderella's vision of her late mother encouraging her to go to the ball. Alexander Bean's lovably immature Prince is as uncertain about the ball and the marriage thing as Cinderella. Tomas Wolstenholme completes the cast as Cinderella's father, the King and a few other parts.

Rob Hiley's music, all played live by the cast as they wheel their instruments around the cramped in-the-round space, is hauntingly beautiful at times with some lovely sung harmonies (and no mics, just a refreshingly natural vocal sound). The arrangements largely work well around the unusual instrumentation of piano, electric double bass, xylophone (sometimes played with a bow for a lovely sound), tubular bells and bits of a drum kit. However when the score wants to be upbeat and celebratory, it sounds like it needs something more in the mix to give it some punch.

This is a production to admire, from the slick direction through Ellen Nabarro's design perfectly in keeping with the script to the uniformly skilled and committed performances, but there are many aspects of it that will work better playing to a theatre-literate audience than a family audience at Christmas.

Of course this isn't a commercial panto aimed at the X Factor crowd, but the web site gives a minimum age of 5; more colour in the design and more jollity in the music—in fact a lot more songs overall—would give it a real lift for audiences at the younger end to keep their attention. I saw concentration in the faces of the children in the press night audience, but only occasionally joy or delight.

However it is still an enjoyable and well-performed retelling of the well-known story and an impressive main stage outing for Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme trainee Ben Occhipinti.

Reviewer: David Chadderton