Michael Cox reviews four different versions of Cinderella: Edinburgh Kings, Dundee Rep, Cumbernauld Theatre and Kilmarnock.
Cinderella is easily one of the most enduring stories we have. The young woman who has a pure heart, strong work-ethic and talent for overcoming hardships and cruelty makes her one of the most sympathetic characters not just in fairy tales but in all of literature. It’s no wonder her tale, or variations on it, are so popular throughout the year, especially so at Christmas.
This year in Scottish theatres, Cinderella seems even more popular than usual, each showcasing a unique version.
For instance, the Cinderella that’s on at the Edinburgh Kings might be called ‘Cinderella’ but in truth it should be called ‘The Stewart, Stott and Gray Show’. The three make a great comedy act and easily have control of the audience from the moment they walk out onstage, but to allow for the three to appear in the panto a major script re-write has taken place. Gone are Cinderella’s father, stepmother and stepsisters and in is Andy Gray’s father-like Buttons and Allan Stewart as Cinderella’s mother, who is in hock to the evil Gobina McPhlegm. Grant Stott’s McPhlegm, with large hair and overdramatic wardrobe, has taken over their estate (and the production whenever he’s on), making the former owners into her servants. Other than that, it’s all par for the course as Joanne Thomson’s delightful Cinderella falls for Paul Luebke’s playful (and impressively fit) Prince Charming.
Those looking for fun shenanigans and theatrical eye candy will not be disappointed. The costumes are a hoot, the dance numbers full of fun energy and the comedy sketches mostly hit, even if the majority of the musical numbers miss their target. However, with story and character taking a back seat to its three leads along with some questionable changes to the story (a helicopter instead of a carriage—really?), as a Cinderella story it’s rather lacking in magic. It’s not bad, but it is a disappointment. Those who make attending this panto a tradition should feel satisfied enough, but newcomers might not be so enthralled.
What is enthralling is Dundee Rep’s rather brave decision to forgo panto magic and go for social semi-realism. Here is a Cinderella tale that could exist in our reality. Cinderella and her widowed father serve as caretakers for retired magicians on a leaky boat while Prince Daniel, who just wants to live a real life, is being forced to look for a bride by his adopted mother—the Queen.
Phil Porter’s script is an absolute gem, finding clever ways of making most of the magical tale work in reality (barring a rather impressive bird), and James Brining’s production finds many ways of making the story playful, entertaining and truthful. The cast are consistently great, playing characters that are bigger than life but still convince. There are some truly wonderful scenes, including Cinderella’s discussion with one of her stepsisters and her usually skipped-over flirtation with the prince, and some great twists on plot and character.
However, if there is a sticking point, it is to be found in the audience’s expectation. Going by the costumed kids and people muttering disappointment during the interval, some seem thrown by the fact that this is a play and not an interactive panto. No one, not even the greedy Yarg women, are presented as two-dimensional cut-outs. Perhaps this would have been a production better suited for the spring or autumn, but it does have to be said that there seems to be dissatisfaction that this doesn’t fit the usual ‘Christmas show’ bill.
This is not a flaw of the production, and it should not deter anyone looking for a top-notch performance. This is great theatre, no matter the season or expectation.
Cumbernauld Theatre’s artistic director, Ed Robson, poses an excellent point: surely Cinderella’s stepmother wouldn’t be defeated by a shoe. Acting more as a sequel or companion piece, this production starts the night before Cinderella’s wedding, with the stepmother trying one last time to scupper Cinderella’s happiness by putting her under a spell and casting her out into an enchanted forest. With the help of a magician, his apprentice and two townspeople, she must break the spell by reclaiming her memories while re-enacting the tale we all know so well.
And it’s all really well done. It is an interesting way to make a familiar story feel fresh while still respecting the story origin. The cast of five do a great job balancing humour with some fairly dark story elements, and the staging is quite engaging. It’s also enjoyable watching Cinderella’s story unfold as a play-within-a-play, and the cast have fun putting on different shoes and jackets to become the more familiar characters.
This production is a fair alternative. It isn’t a stereotypical pantomime, but it has enough panto elements to satisfy expectations; and it isn’t your average Cinderella, but it manages to tick all of the correct boxes while being an original experience. Those looking for a traditional production might be a bit disappointed, but those wanting a fresh take on a familiar story will find a great deal to like.
What is rather refreshing about Kilmarnock’s Palace Theatre’s Cinderella is how traditional it all is: dames, community kids in the ensemble and (a rare find in Scotland) principal boys. It’s a production that one could easily chip away at: the sets are a bit wobbly, some of the staging misses the target, the backstage crew have a bad habit of being seen and some of the special effects are on the cheap side.
But it also has something that, frankly, most productions I’ve seen this Christmas season lack: heart. This is a production that truly wants to be liked. It isn’t cynical, it isn’t driven by celebrity ego and it isn’t about stunt staging intent on packing audiences into the seats and running off with the money. Everything about it feels authentic and heartfelt and its pluses far outweigh its minuses.
The cast certainly have a blast. Liam Dolan sure has worked hard, not only serving as director and writing additional material to the script but also presents a very likeable Buttons. Jane McCarry has some fine moments as the Fairy Godmother, Ashley Bruce makes for a Cinderella that’s easy to root for and Lisa Mathieson and Natalie Tulloch have some good moments as Prince Charming and his valet Dandini. But the real heroes of this production are to be found in the two stepsisters. Steven Wren’s Flatula and Craig Glover’s Verucca are an absolute joy to behold. They are grotesquely fantastic in their comedy double-act and have an absolute ball playing not only with the cast but with the audience as well.
It may not be the best production out there, but anyone looking for a genuine panto experience that wears its heart on its sleeve and does everything a family Christmas show should without ridiculous gimmicks need look no further than this absolute charmer. It might be a bit rough around the edges, but it’s a gem nonetheless.
Cinderella at the Edinburgh Kings is on until January22 . Dundee Rep’s and Kilmarnock’s Cinderella productions are on until December 31. Cumbernauld Theatre’s production has completed its run.