It’s been nearly 30 years since a pantomime has appeared on the stage of the London Palladium, so this current production of Cinderella mounted by Qdos marks a spectacular return to form for the genre. In the intervening years, the venue has held fast with a succession of spectacular musical theatre productions but the sudden closure of I Can’t Sing in 2014 led to what can best be described as fragmented programming for what is, at 2,286 seats, the largest theatre in the West End.
Such a high-profile return requires a very particular treatment and thankfully producer/director Michael Harrison brings a wealth of experience to the table, including choreographer/director Andrew Wright. Wright’s stamp on the show is undeniable, ranging from simple musical staging to a full-on chorus line of tap-dancing pumpkins. His choreography is consistently inventive and bursting with characterful touches, particularly in the opening scene set endearingly on the streets of Soho where Fairyland meets Theatreland.
Last year, the UK was awash with productions of Cinderella, no doubt cashing in on the release of the popular Disney movie. The story, taken from tales by The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault has been adapted over generations and even this production sees changes to the familiar story. Cinderella no longer helps the old woman in the wood, the first meeting between Cinders and the Prince is sidelined in favour of a comedy clash between Paul O’Grady’s caustic Baroness Hardup and Julian Clary’s wickedly dry Dandini.
The light entertainment scene that shaped the pantomime season in its heyday has changed enormously but Harrison’s cast reflects the cream of performing talent rather than simply celebrity faces or stunt casting. O’Grady and Clary are seasoned pantomime performers with more than a hint of camp to their performance style. Aside from Britain’s Got Talent duties, Amanda Holden is a regular face in the West End while the tousle-haired Lee Mead has long been a shoo-in for the most charming of Princes since winning Any Dream Will Do back in 2007.
Paul Zerdin is one of the most sought after spesh acts on the circuit at the moment, taking ventriloquism to new heights. It’s a gamble casting Zerdin as Buttons, often played by a standard comedian, but Zerdin’s natural charm combined with puppet Sam’s cheekiness is a winning combination.
Completing the above-the-title billing is Steve Delaney’s Count Arthur Strong as Baron Hardup, whose quirky comedy is an acquired taste, although he’s barely on stage long enough to garner any real laughs. Nigel Havers on the other hand 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.
In something akin to a real Cinderella story, Natasha J Barnes was cooling her heels as the understudy to Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl this time last year. Fate may have thrown the performer into the spotlight but it’s talent that supports her while she’s there as Barnes proves more than a match for the major entertainment talent around her. It’s just a shame that the story doesn’t really allow her more time on stage with Mead.
The gender fluidity that usually epitomises pantomime is perhaps played down a little here. There is no traditional cartoon dame as such, although the hints of Lily Savage in O’Grady’s Wicked Stepmother are more than enough female impersonator for any pantomime. It’s an oddly low-energy performance from O’Grady and, while he appears desperately stylish in a succession of Hugh Durrant frocks, he seldom dominates his scenes.
Clary is quite the opposite. 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. Usually comically aloof, he is also game for a laugh, taking to the skies in a flying Vespa or joining in the familiar chaos of the ubiquitous pantomime song.
Wendy Somerville and Suzie Chard are great value as the Wicked Stepsisters, excitable and oddly girlish but the bulk of the comedy is channelled in other directions, notably Clary.
Harrison and Qdos have excelled with Cinderella. It’s a good half an hour too long, but this is a pantomime bursting with glamour, confidence and gloriously excessive production values. Holden as the Fairy Godmother flies out into the audience, 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. The transformation scene however is a bit of a let-down. Given that Cinderella is consistently billed as the most magical pantomime of them all, the magic is a little clunky. The flying carriage and life-size animatronic horses seem awfully stilted and Barnes’ onstage costume transformation lacks lustre.
However, in a theatrical landscape littered with pared-down, stripped and semi-staged productions, Cinderella is a breath of fresh air from designers who aren’t afraid of colour and when to celebrate it. Sadly, the same can’t be said of Jonathan Kiley and the casting team who, in a year when diversity is a hot topic, have brought together a predominantly white cast. It may be a minor point but hopefully one that will be addressed, as Qdos are already planning dates at the Palladium for 2017 and 2018.