The Prince isn’t all that’s charming about this Cinderella: a theatrical, thoughtful and funny alternative to Christmas pantomime
Getting to grips with fairytales can be Grimm; while fertile ground for Freudian subtext and feminist retellings, they’re often less fruitful for originality and separating themselves from the usual panto-fare – especially ones staged at this time of year. Yet, Tobacco Factory Theatre’s Cinderella: A Fairytale seems to have broken the spell. This archetypal rags-to-riches tale makes use of the gruesome original – eyes are pecked out and toes hacked off – but it keeps enough giggles and intrigue for a theatrical, thoughtful and funny alternative to Christmas pantomime.
Under Chris Pirie’s direction, and with Katie Sykes’s delightfully simple and rustic designs in the intimate in-the-round setting, the seven-strong cast of actor-musicians illuminate the performance like the lanterns dangling above the audience. Our eponymous lead (Isabella Marshall) moves from pink-dressed puppet to plucky young lady, dancing ’til midnight in glittery Doc Martens in place of glass slippers. Craig Edwards’s dame-like evil stepmother evolves in front of us from Cinder’s mild-mannered father to a frocked and bonneted Victorian villain, but the absurdity soon subsides as she descends into a money-driven, meat-cleaver-wielding mad(wo)man. The step-family is completed by Lucy Tuck and her impeccable comic timing as the shrill but slow pink-bowed stepsister, and, unusually, a deliciously camp but beguilingly sincere stepbrother in Dorian Simpson, but it’s Joey Hickman’s asthma-puffing, love-sick scatting, bespectacled Prince that steals the show.
So, of all the usual pantomime players, only the Fairy Godmother is missing, but she’s beautifully reimagined as some feathered forest-friends – intermittently fluttering between the fingers of all the multi-rolling performers – and it’s these birds that form and lift the piece beyond plain fairytale. Always echoing back to Cinderella’s late father, it’s the birds that facilitate the lovers’ first encounter – she escaping to the forest for a break from the back-breaking work she’s been forced into, he an overly-eager bird-watcher – and, in turn, develop it. Their relationship moves from tentative whistles and whirrs, with Cinders calling the birds to the clearing to be ticked off the Prince’s list of latin names, to her learning the latin name for flamingo – ‘they mate for life’ – and reciting it back to him at the ball before they dance, which is less a waltz than a wacky routine of arm-flapping and head-bopping from Joêl Daniel’s sprightly and high-spirited choreography.
The birdsong itself, a rich soundscape of whistles, warbles, tweets and trills, brings a lyricism that spreads its wings and flies into bird songs – upbeat reprises of everything from ‘birds of a feather flock together’ to ‘two little dickie birds’ – wonderfully accompanied by the two-man orchestra of Brian Hargreaves and Alex Heane, who play Benji Bower’s gentle jazz and swing-sounding score with effortless flair. The musicians also head some of the more meta-theatric hints in the show, from their incidental crooning disrupted by the Prince, who seizes the mic to scat his own love-sick nonsense, to a roll-call of Bristol place-names as the Prince’s search for his Cinderella begins amidst the audience. But, meta-theatricality isn’t limited to the musicians, and its other inspired moment is the stepmother’s sinister plate-smashing in an attempt to prevent Ella attending the ball; hilariously portrayed by a cast member literally smashing plates into a box while the stepmother mimes it, the audience applauds their efforts in hysterics amid the horror.
And, perhaps, it’s this mix of meta-theatricality, fun experimentation and polished performance that makes this fairytale reimagining a triumph; it leaves you with such a warmth that you’ll be warbling and whistling long after you’ve left the theatre. Clearly, the Prince isn’t the only thing that’s charming about this Cinderella.
Tobacco Factory Theatre Bristol, January 14th 2017, cast: Isabella Marshall, Joey Hickman, Craig Edwards, Lucy Tuck, Dorian Simpson, Brian Hargreaves & Alex Heane, picture by Farrows Creative, click for link to Cinderella: A Fairytale site at tobaccofactorytheatres.com, playing until Sunday 22nd January 2017