Retold by Ben Power and Melly Still
Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith
This is not a panto and, as the playwrights point out in the programme, they have based their telling of the story not on Perrault's French version but on the rather darker Aschenputtel of the Brothers Grimm. Grim is what this Cinderella's story turns out to be. This is a Christmas show noticeably lacking in laughs. There is no fairy godmother to do magic, and therefore no pumpkin or mice to turn into coach and coachmen and no golden coach or transformation scene, no Buttons or Dandini, no blue jokes and no references to popular television programmes or disgraced politicians. Cinderella does get to the ball - three balls in fact - but under her own steam and despite having said she doesn't want to go. Even her step-sisters (who aren't ugly at all, except in their bullying and bossy exploitation of their gentle and industrious step-sibling) only get an invitation because their father steals one for the whole family out of the postbag of the Prince's messenger!
The form is very much story-telling with the characters describing the action, in the past tense, as they perform it and with probably only about half of it in dialogue. Ever since the David Edgar / RSC Nicholas Nickleby this has been a familiar style but, while it is an effective way of setting up and linking dramatic episodes, when in carries most of the action too it can have distancing effect and here we seem always to be watching the performance without becoming very engaged in it.
Sophia Clist's design sets everything in what looks rather like a night-club among soaring silver birches, with an elegant staircase leading to an upper level set up for the band - in this case the eclectic range of instruments played solo by Norwegian composer Terje Isungest which range from a mouth harp to what appears to be a horn made of ice, as well as a whole range of percussion, bells, and a musical saw. Isungest makes an enormous contribution to the production. Beginning it with mouth harp music, that when amplified sounds like a didgeridoo, he moves down to play among the performers almost becoming part of the action. Above him are a flock of white snow pigeons, sometimes circling low above the actors and, as finger-puppets manipulated by the actors, more of these friends of Cinderella flutter all over the stage to open the action. They are the magical element that motivates Cinderella, magically presented in Melly Still's production, as are the many imaginative ways in which a great forest stag, a snow blizzard, the chopping down of a favourite hazel tree and other images are created.
It takes a long time to get into the story because Power and Still have chosen to fill out the background to both Cinderella and her Prince by recounting other tales from the Brothers Grimm, stories which one is never quite sure whether they really happened or are something Cinderella is imagining in her private world.
Elizabeth Chan makes a delightful Cinderella and Daniel Weyman a charming Prince who likes enjoys flirting with all the eligible girls lined up for him but has no intention of marrying any of them, though a nasty knock to the head has blurred his memory of meeting Cinderella for whom he has already fallen. Tim McMullan is Cinderella's father, Katherine Manners and Kelly Williams her step-sisters Dorothy and Candide, and Gráinne Byrne both their mother and the Queen. They are all beautiful performances, giving their characters an honest directness and making the most of the freshness of what dialogue there is as well as mastering a whole range of theatrical forms.
When not playing their main characters Melly keeps them busy in some other way. There is no let up for the cast even in the interval, when everyone is invited to the last of the Queen's fiancée-finding balls. Instead of a paper invitation, everyone is handed a length of cloth to accessorise their dress as scarf, shawl or sash and join musician Isungset and the characters in the foyer for a knees up. I saw the show with a house packed with school parties who clearly relished this opportunity to let off steam after sitting so quietly well-behaved for the first half.
They were just as quiet when they went back into the theatre, the play clearly held them, until, following the savagery of the Grimm version, the beautiful snow pigeons wreaked revenge on stepmother and her daughters by pecking out their eyes. The youngsters loved it and broke out in shrieks of laughter and a roar of approval. Evidence indeed that they had been involved with the story and identified with its characters, but I did feel that it was a pity that they had not been given the opportunity to release some of their emotional involvement earlier.
Runs until 3rd January 2009 - It is a co-production with Warwick Arts Centre and can be seen there next Christmas.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton