Phil Porter
Unicorn Theatre

Production photo

Unicorn's Christmas show for the youngsters (target age 6 up) is a somewhat rethought version of the familiar story. This Cinderella lives with her father on a boat that is a home for retired magicians. It is named Cassandra after her late mother. Dad is a bit absent minded and rather lazy, so it falls to Cinderella to look after everything and when dad feels the need to find a new wife she finds herself looking after her and her two daughters too as in the traditional tale.

Amaka Okafor's Cinderella is practical and charming and gains the audience's affection straight away. The daughters of step-mother (Julie Hewlett) are played hilariously as panto-style 'ugly sisters' by John Cockerill and Ery Nzaramba in grotesque drag.

Up in the palace Samantha Adams's Queen is worried about the family's image - the latest polls give her only 4% support, but she's very public image aware and is sure a royal marriage will boost her popularity. Strongly influenced by television game shows she sets up an audition at which violin-playing Prince Amjad (Liam Lane) her adopted son has to chose his bride, the rejects being given a tooted raspberry and dropped through a trapdoor. The candidates (all played in drag) include one he begins to like, until she reveals what she is really like, and another who, to the young audience's delight (I saw it with a house packed with school parties), fires farts in all directions (Rupert Wickham, unrecognizable as being the same actor playing Dad). When auditions fail to produce a single viable candidate the prince decides to throw a butterfly ball and a royal frogman delivers the invitations to those aboard SS Cassandra.

Brightly mounted by designer Russell Craig with colourful costumes and a set that revolves from rusting boat to white-staircased palace seen against a blue sky that fills with butterflies and fireworks for the Prince's ball, the show looks lovely,. The slow revolves stretch out the change from scene to scene - but with music to accompany them they still held the young audience's attention and time was probably needed to allow for costume changes and all the doubling that was going..

There's no gold coach - though the world's largest seagull is on hand for aerial transport; no transformation scene - though lots of magician's magic. Justin Butcher, whose magician does a lot of the magic, like the rest of the cast pops up all over the place as a prominent courtier for instance and with the blink of an eye he is at the piano playing a live accompaniment. With a hard-working cast of only eight, when Cinderella gets to the ball there so many men in drag there is almost no male cast left to be their partners. Nevertheless, this is very much a play with songs (composer Martin Ward) and not a pantomime, though it generates the same warm response from its audience.

There is a new twist to the story when the ugly sisters have to wait while Cinderella has first go at trying on the 'slipper' ('No, it's a shoe!' Prince Amjad repeatedly corrects his mother), though it is one of them who is chosen as the royal bride and, though love triumphs in the end, the outcome makes one wonder whether this prince will ever become king. There are some strong points being made behind the laughter about responsibility and fairness.

I don't know what the audience loved best. There was a huge cheer when the lights went down, and elated applause when the Prince eventually kissed Cinderella but for quite a few the best bit was when the seagull shat all over Cinderella's stepmother from way above their heads. Both Phil Porter's script and Tony Graham's direction are well tuned to their audience which watched and listened with quiet concentration, reacting at points with explosions of laughter and emotion.

Until 24th January 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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