Up until two days ago I was a pantomime virgin. I was happy in this state. I had grown up in Australia where such things did not exist, or at least, I had never heard of them. It was only when my family and I returned to England that I caught whiff of this singular and very English phenomenon. I confess the very notion filled me with horror. Men dressed as women, adults dressed as children, loud noise and rude laughter, consummate bad taste applauded. It sounded like public school all over again.
But once one becomes a parent, one not only engages in activities one has never before engaged in, but activities that once may have been anathema, often with the fervour of a religious maniac. Having spent years silently deriding the gullible fools who flocked to see Lenny Henry gurning his way through a performance as the Fairy Godmother or Les Dawson mince home as an Ugly Sister, I now found myself counting the days down until Cinderella as though I was the heroine waiting for the ball to clock round. I was even more excited than my four year old daughter.
Admittedly the immediate preamble was not auspicious. My daughter fell asleep on the banquette in the café with an hour to curtain up and my wife’s eyelids were drooping fast. I had a scan of the programme and the only name I recognised was Sara Crowe’s. The performance ran for two hours fifteen including intermission. A sudden chill surmounted me. Perhaps my cynical bachelor self had been right all along. What if this was toe-curlingly dreadful? What had I committed to?
My first surprise was when we wandered into the auditorium. The original Victorian Lyric was pulled down forty years ago and is now a resolutely modern affair. Except that the elaborate rococo interior designed by Frank Matcham had somehow been salvaged and reconstructed here in all its fin de siècle glory. It was a surprisingly intimate space and with its tiers and rolling plasterwork suited the flavour of the production. The stage was veiled from the prying eyes of the audience by a vast drape on whose golden curlicues Renaissance cherubs had been transformed into giant mice (a nod to those that feature in the story.) Around the proscenium arch were big golden pieces of clockwork mechanism hinting at the importance of time and the unravelling of the Fairy Godmother’s spell come midnight.
The seats were beginning to fill up, with at least half of those present children of various ages. There is something about the enthusiasm of the young, so vital and unstymied, that is infectious. In fact, by the time the lights went down it was the adults who were making most of the noise. The kids were wide-eyed and silent with anticipation.
Things kicked off in relatively subdued tones with the entry of the Fairy Godmother (Debra Michaels) talking up her plans of retirement, starting with an ocean cruise. But first there was the future of her charge to consider, the young Cinderella. She had a special gift for her to help in her travails, a ribbon-wrapped box that she needed to entrust to safe hands. Cue the arrival of Buttons, a portly Samuel Buttery, a sort of baby-faced G-rated version of Johnny Vegas, best friend to Cinderella and servant to the dastardly Madame Woo, the Wicked Step Mother. Buttons confides that he has problems of his own – a paralysing shyness and desire to sing but fear of doing so. There duly follows a song and dance number led by the Fairy Godmother entitled, “Panto Funk it Up” wherein Buttons proves, despite his stature and self effacement, that he is a mover of rare groove and dexterity.
As the curtain rose we found ourselves in a dungeon of a scullery with glowering oven and oversized wonky doors and windows typical of a fairy tale. Here Cinderella (newcomer Krystal Dockery), broom in hand, laments the many tasks she must perform before she is allowed to go to the ball, including preparing dinner for her greedy, grasping family. It is here that the villains of the piece are introduced, Ugly Sisters “Booty” (Matt Sutton) and “Licious” (Peter Caulfield) and Wicked Stepmother Madame Woo (Sara Crowe). The sisters speak with the gruff, throaty twang of the Yorkshire pits and are unfeasibly endowed with a prosthetic derrière and cleavage between them. They possess the quickfire banter of real siblings and are physically interchangeable in their grotesquery.
Their performance became more outrageous and hilarious as the story progressed until even they were stifling laughter, and culminated in the ritual humiliation of a male member of the audience culled at random (I slunk deep into my seat at this point). Madame Woo, by contrast, is a delicious mixture of reptilian Cruella di Vil with the girlie haughtiness of Queeny from “Blackadder II”. We were told at the beginning that the actress had had a bad fall that day but had decided that the show must go on – with her in a wheelchair! If anything such a device in such sinister hands signalled something of a coup de théâtre.
From here the production gallivants along the familiar lines of the version passed down to us by Perrault (as opposed to the Brothers Grimm’s meatier, bloodier version) with enough modern diversions and flourishes to keep it fresh for a contemporary audience. (For instance, in true romcom style, Cinderella first meets and falls for Prince Charming (Karl Queensborough) whilst fishing for her odious family on the King’s river. This precipitates their first and probably sweetest song together.) I didn’t recognise all the songs but I am fresh enough out of the box to realise that most of them are sing-along hits that have been carefully stitched in by arranger Corin Buckeridge and which younger audiences will be familiar with.
The whole production is a nifty balance of keeping the different generations entertained. There is the sweetness, mugging and pyrotechnics for the little ones, the “X Factor” pizzazz for the adolescents and a steady flow of double entendres for sad dads and “Carry On” fanciers in the audience. (There is even a chance for admirers of renowned Viennese psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim to see the Freudian theories on fairy tales tested in the flesh…)
The thing fairly zips along. This was not the faltering am-dram thing I had envisaged in my youth but a slick, confident thoroughbred with the pedigree of a West End musical. I admit I tottered for the first ten or fifteen minutes. I don’t know when the full conversion was made – there was perhaps no Road to Damascus moment – but I was won by a series of subtle and not so subtle increments. The jokes by writer Tom Wells were funny and bang up to date (including an Adele gag which must have been feathered in no more than a week before), the singing and dancing were full of gusto and the sets were lavish. But it was the raw sense of fun that ultimately won me over, exuded by everyone from the young ensemble to the principal players. Everything was delivered with such genuine brio. About a third of the way through I found myself clapping and singing along and then, like a man carried away on a tide of spiritual conviction, I found myself breaking an ancient vow and yelling, “He’s behind you!”
Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith until 3rd January 2016. Suitable for ages 6 and over. For more information and to book tickets visit the website.