Writer/director Susie McKenna, mastermind behind Hackney’s pantos, has done it again. From the first puff of smoke and the appearance of Sophie–Louise Dann’s blonde Fairy Godmother in fetching powder blue you know things are in good hands.
This year, Hackney has lost what seemed to be a fixture, Clive Rowe’s dame (he’s up West in The Ladykillers at the Gielgud) but instead we get two dames in the delightful Ugly Sisters of local favourites Kat B (his first time as a dame I think) and Tony Whittle. They may be mean and ugly but you can’t help but like them. It’s their monstrous mother who is the real evil, and Joanna Riding is clearly having the time of her life as the Wicked Stepmother from Bethnal Green, milking boos as enthusiastically as Matt Dempsey’s Buttons draws our support. Baron Hardup, Cinderella’s dad, is often rather a cipher, but not when you have Peter Straker playing him, a loving father who lost his money on the horses but still looks dashing in a diamond buttoned coat.
Sophie Ragavelas's vivacious Cinderella is truly charming, and so is Wayne Perrey as her good-looking Prince. Why doesn’t she fall for him when the Fairy Godmother first gets them together in the first scene of the show? A nice touch this, like the scene that puts the Ugly Sisters in a haunted bedroom with jokey-scary ghosts and phantom hands reaching through the walls. As a replacement for the traditional slapstick spot, it is not something I‘ve seen before—this is a production that feels constantly fresh, not least when Cinderella spectacularly soars off to the ball in a coach drawn by a flying horse.
Clapton is another horse who starts off by dumping the Ugly Sisters in the dirt. Why doesn’t the duo playing him get a credit? He is an audience favourite too and the panto song-sheet number has a singalong, clap-along lyric all about him.
American singer and former ballet dancer Tee Jaye is Dandini; Prince Charming has been to university in the States and he returned with him. I know the old tradition was for these roles to be played by women but that was to give them an excuse to show their legs en travestie. There is no need for it now that we don’t have to find an excuse for that and I must confess, though I love a dame, I prefer to see the boys roles played by men.
This is a show that is very strongly cast. Even the voices of Cinderella’s kitchen friends the Duke and Duchess (a pair of large pop-up puppet mice) are voiced by Clarke Peters and Sharon D Clark. Everyone can really sing and they are pretty nimble-footed too, even the tiniest tot of Bright Sparks Dance Academy can handle Frank Thompson’s lively choreography and regular designer Lotte Collett’s story-book sets and costumes are her best yet.
A Strictly Come Dancing spoof didn’t quite work for me but there are plenty of local and topical allusions (the Wicked Stepmother wants to sell Hard Up Hall for an Olympics car park for one) and the jokes are never blue though sometimes stinky pooh. At two hours forty with the interval it may be a little long for tired tots but the audience didn’t want it to end and when it comes it is rather sudden with an unusual exit before the finale which is really, as so often, just a curtain call, though here enlivened with a Bollywood touch to the choreography.
Definitely “Top Banana” as this Buttons would say with a high five.
“Cinderella” runs at the Hackney Empire until 8th January 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton