Theatre Royal, York
Babbies and bairns of all ages, brace yourselves - this year's panto features not one, not two, but three men in frocks! After enduring twenty-one years of festive humiliation at the hands of Berwick Kaler, Martin Barrass has finally been promoted to the role of Ugly Sister. And just in case David "Boo, Hiss" Leonard felt left out he has been entrusted with the double role of Baron Stonebroke and his mail-order bride Baroness von Pratt, giving him the opportunity to meet himself coming backwards
Loyal fans of the Theatre Royal panto would probably develop withdrawal symptoms if the annual line-up didn't feature Dame Berwick himself, put-upon sidekick Barrass, perky heroine Suzy Cooper and the infamous David Leonard. All four are present - if not always correct - and so are two more recent recruits to the gang, Essex Boy Vincent Gray (Buttons) and "nephew" Michael Joseph (Dimdini). Former chorus boy Mr Joseph works wonders with a small part and richly deserves a warm hand on his entrance (Leave the double entendres to the professionals - Ed.). Oh, and a certain limelight-hogging crocodile pops up here and there.
Somewhere beneath the lavish coating of gags, glitter and goo lies the traditional Cinderella story. Cinders (who else but Suzy Cooper?) lives with her dad Baron Stonebroke, a family of huge Warfarin-resistant mice and the loyal Buttons, who worships her from afar. Alas, he doesn't stand a chance when Prince Charming (Anne Marie Lawton) casts a thickly mascara'd eye on the poor but good-hearted girl. Cinders seems strangely unconcerned by the fact that her father and new stepmother, Baroness von Pratt, find it almost (but not quite) impossible to spend quality time together; alas, she soon finds herself on the wrong side of the Baroness and her daughters - Thelma (Berwick Kaler), a violent punkette, and Louise (Martin Barrass), a gormless but basically decent lass who shares a couturier with Looby Loo. However, with the help of Dimdini and Cinders' glamorous Fairy Godmother (Siân Howard) true love triumphs in the end.
Cinderella has all the hallmarks of a classic Theatre Royal panto. The only thing that flies thicker and faster than the jokes is the water lots and lots of water. I love the audience's almost Pavlovian response to the sight of an oilcloth-covered stage - they may not actually salivate, but they lean forward in anticipation of seeing Berwick's wig sent flying by sheets of H20. Nigel Hook's ever-inventive designs include a gorgeous transformation scene for the heroine's pumpkin and mice, the five-strong chorus do sterling work and Siân Howard makes a welcome return to York panto after a twenty-one year absence (during which she was at one point reduced to working for the RSC). So why did I leave the theatre feeling that something was missing?
Part of the answer seems to be that on at least three occasions the show lost momentum and struggled to pick up the pace. An unfunny film sequence depicting Thelma and Louise's trip to Castle Howard and an over-long "black theatre" scene in which their pink Cadillac is dismantled by unseen hands could have been dispensed with, and whilst not wishing to deprive Mr Barrass of a tribute to his twenty-one years in panto I feel it could have been done more effectively live than on film. Another weakness was the music and lyrics, neither of which were quite up to the high standard set in recent years.
These quibbles apart, Cinderella is still a must-see for any fan of traditional panto. The show is proof - if any were needed - that David Leonard is one of the all-time great panto performers, with or without a frock. Berwick Kaler, look to your laurels!
At York Theatre Royal until 3 February 2007
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson