Michael Harrison and Brian Conley
Were the father of modern British pantomime Augustus Harris alive today, he would be incredibly jealous of the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime, which strongly continues the precedent set by Drury Lane in the late 19th Century and practised at the London Palladium until the late 1980s of stars and spectacle. Qdos’s annual fare at the Hippodrome is famed throughout the land as being the biggest and most spectacular show of the season and this year’s Cinderella certainly lives up that title.
In his fifth Hippodrome pantomime, Brian Conley excels as Buttons, a role he has played many times before. Harrison’s new production focuses strongly on Cinderella’s best friend’s side of the story allowing Conley’s many talents to be showcased in all their glory. Whether being silly, driving the Songsheet, interacting with audience members, singing or dancing, Conley’s Buttons is real a lesson in showmanship. His frantic pace is unstoppable as the audience roars with laughter and here is a performer born for pantomime who gives it his all night after night.
There are numerous magical moments in this Cinderella; from a hilarious rendition of ‘Everything I do (I Do It For You)’ upon a wall in the forest to flying Pegases, Ugly Sisters and motorbikes, but the moment that tops it all is the appearance of Charlie the Horse in Act Two. When the Fairy Godmother gives Buttons the chance to impress Cinderella, he goes straight to the stables and calls upon his equestrian friend. A real life golden stallion, Charlie responds to Buttons’s every line, interacting with his human counterpart and emoting through his many gestures. This amazing feat of animal training by Tommy Roberts is mesmerising and reminds us of pantomime’s strong links with the circus.
Although this is Conley’s umpteenth pantomime, it is Fairy Godmother Lynda Bellingham’s first and the first of what will surely be many. A natural in the role, her Fairy Godmother is glamorous, but fruity, regal, yet naughty, and calls upon Buttons as her special helper to ensure Cinderella gets the Happy Ending she deserves. A plot device which makes the Fairy only visible to Buttons is used to great effect and Conley and Bellingham’s rapport onstage demonstrates that they are having as much fun as the audience.
This Cinderella follows the pattern of many current musicals with a long opening sequence which sets the pace and reveals the key narrative information so that by time it’s over the audience has already witnessed Dandini and Prince Charming swap places, found out Buttons is in love with Cinderella, seen the Ugly Sisters arrive and heard about their hatred for the Principal Girl. As compacted as these narrative episodes may be, they are necessary to enable a tribute to Britain’s Got Talent for Buttons and an homage to 42nd Street when Baron Basil Brush, Cinderella’s Uncle, dreams of becoming rich adding more spectacle and sparkle to this already dazzling show
No expense has been spared in this production and along with the many special effects, the musical numbers buzz with ten professional dancers and a six piece orchestra. Starting proceedings with ‘Born This Way’, Ugly Sisters Kelly and Tulisa in the form of Martin Ramsdin and David Robbins have many a glorious outfit and some seem to have more sparkle than the production’s glitter and star cloths.
With all this glitz and glam, the romance aspect of the narrative gets shoved to one side, but Kathryn Rooney in the title role makes for a sweet and honest Cinderella in amongst all the well-organised chaos. Matthew Goodgame’s Prince Charming is suitably dashing and his equerry, Dandini, played by Dan Burton, certainly knows how to belt out a tune beginning Act Two’s Royal Ball with a refreshingly different ‘What A Feeling (On Top of The World)’.
‘That’s What Friend Are For’ and ‘A Moment Like This’ are used as tender musical motifs throughout the production and by the time the cast sing their final musical number the entire audience is on its feet joining in. Cinderella’s prologue reminds the audience to “sit back, relax and enjoy the magic of pantomime” and in this toe tapping, hand clapping, rib tickling production, everyone has a ball.
‘Cinderella’ plays at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 29th January 2012.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen