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Cinderella pantomime at the London Palladium – review round-up

Paul O'Grady in Cinderella at the London Palladium. Photo: Paul Coltas/Steve Williams Paul O'Grady in Cinderella at the London Palladium. Photo: Paul Coltas/Steve Williams
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It’s that time of year. Oxford Street is rammed, there are fewer choccies left in your advent calendar, and you’ve already lost your grandma twice in John Lewis. And, this Christmas, after a 30-year absence, the West End has got its tinsel back. Yep, there’s a panto at the Palladium. It’s Cinderella. Praise be to Santa.

Pantomime factory Qdos has splashed out. Michael Harrison’s production pulls out all the stops, boasting a star-studded cast including seasoned panto performers Julian Clary and Paul O’Grady, alongside Amanda Holden, Nigel Havers, Natasha J Barnes, Lee Mead, and other TV talent.

But is this a triumphant return to one of the West End’s largest auditoriums, or a flamboyant failure on an epic scale? Can the critics – dead-eyed and disorientated from all the pantos they’ve already seen – even work out what year it is? And, crucially, wouldn’t you be better off at home watching Love Actually again?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…

Cinderella – a whole lot of pun

We all know the plot of Cinderella: undeserving but good-looking teenager marries unelected monarch-to-be, freeloading it on the civil list, at the expense of her eternally vilified, less-pretty sisters. But what’s the story here? Is this classic panto, fairy godmother, screaming children, aching pathos and all?

Well, not exactly. There’s little cross-dressing and no dame, for starters. According to Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard★★★), the show is “less the usual festive fare and more an actual variety show”, and indeed, from the reviews, the majority of the evening seems to have been a smut-slinging contest between Clary and O’Grady as Dandini and Baroness Hardup respectively. Which isn’t to everyone’s tastes.

Michael Billington (the Guardian★★★) claims it is, “without a doubt, the filthiest panto I’ve ever seen”, and hankers for a bit more good, clean, old-timey fun. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph★★) goes further, confessing himself “faintly incredulous how much director Michael Harrison has allowed the spectre of smutty innuendo to attend this supposed feast of family entertainment”.

This is a show constructed for adults, he warns, asserting that “there’s an adult market for unsavoury carry-on but a panto that doesn’t put children at the heart of its desire to please is wasting its effort and energies”.

Not all are as curmudgeonly. Libby Purves (TheatreCat★★★★) calls Harrison’s production “the mother-lode of pantomime”, “a treasure chest” and “a packed stockingful of silly treats”. Paul Vale (The Stage★★★★) regrets the paucity of traditional plot, but nevertheless finds himself enjoying “a pantomime bursting with glamour, confidence and gloriously excessive production values”. And Daisy Bowie-Sell (WhatsOnStage★★★★) thinks “it has everything you’d want and expect from a panto but ramped up to the absolute max”.

Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★) sums up the prevailing praise well, considering Cinderella “a judicious cocktail of spangled filth, fairytale innocence and celebrity horseplay”.

Cinderella – Prince who?

If they were not on stage, the cast of this panto would variously be TV presenters, touring comedians, and attempting to avoid hesitation, repetition and deviation on Radio 4. But they are on stage at the moment, so how do they do?

Holden – who does do the odd musical – gets a lukewarm reception. For Bowie-Sell, she “holds herself very well” as the Fairy Godmother, for Cavendish, she “passes muster”, but for Mountford, she “struggles”.

Others fare better. Vale writes that Havers “is a hoot as the Lord Chamberlain, parodying his own reputation as the thinking housewife’s crumpet, while humbly fishing for a larger role to play”. Letts is impressed with ventriloquist-comedian Paul Zerdin’s “terrific” Buttons. And, according to Simon Sladen (British Theatre Guide), “Susie Chard and Wendy Somerville make a strong comedic pairing” as the evil stepsisters. Mead and Barnes, as Prince Charming and his eponymous bride, also earn universal praise, with many wishing they had more stage time.

It’s all about Clary and O’Grady, though, who entertain as much as they offend. Of the former, Vale captures the prevailingly laudatory mood, when he writes: “In an array of increasingly outrageous, feather-trimmed costumes, the comedian commands practically every scene, constantly breaking the fourth wall and consistently raising the roof with desperately near-the-knuckle innuendo.”

And Bowie-Sell extols both the wit and the wickedness of the latter: “O’Grady has a barrel-load of magnificent evil put-downs, and he hates on the audience with startling ease: his evil Baroness feels genuinely vicious.”

Cinderella – a Christmas spectacular

Even those uncomfortable with Cinderella’s smut credit Harrison and Qdos for the show’s exuberance and lavishness. For Billington, it’s “eye-poppingly spectacular”, while for Cavendish, it’s “a very eye-pleasingly spectacle – complete with much flying over the stalls and a wedding-cake set of turrets and towers”.

There’s garlands of praise for Hugh Durrant’s costumes, which are “ridiculously garish and drowned in sparkles” according to Bowie-Sell, and “simply stunning” according to Crofts, who also lauds Andrew Wright’s choreography as “show-stopping”.

By all accounts, there’s an awful lot to marvel at. “Holden as the Fairy Godmother flies out into the audience,” squeals Vale, like a child on Christmas morning, “there’s a whole squadron of guardsman dancing Busby Berkley-style to Clary’s rendition of Downtown and Ian Westbrook’s settings are a riot of perspective.”

One clunky note amid this riotous symphony is Cinders’ transformation scene, which is “rather clumsy” according to Veronica Lee (The Arts Desk,★★★★) and “a bit of a let-down” for Vale, who’s calmed down a bit now.

One thing is for sure, though; Tony Peters (Radio Times,★★★★) seems to get it spot on when he remarks that “to describe this Cinderella as over the top feels like something of an understatement, but it’s in a good way.”

Dominic Maxwell (Times,★★★★) concurs. “There are certainly faults with this disarmingly excessive production”, he writes, “but doing things by halves is not one of them.”

Cinderella – is it any good?

It probably depends who you are. If you’re a five-year-old, you might be wowed by the visuals, but unable to appreciate the finer points of Clary’s saucy innuendo. If you’re a 50-year-old with a five-year old, you might enjoy both, but fret that Clary’s banter has permanently scarred your companion for life.

If you hate panto, you’ll hate Cinderella. If you can’t get enough of it, then this, the first festive show at the Palladium for three decades, is probably one you don’t want to miss. Oh no it isn’t.

It is, as Rod McPhee (Mirror) confirms, “a turbo-charged panto of epic proportions”.

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