The Prince is holding one of his big balls. If that sentence suggests to you anything other than “That must be Cinderella then”, this is the pantomime for you. It’s not the most adult pantomime you could ever see, but it certainly lives up to the expectations that arise (ooh, Matron) as soon as you know that Julian Clary will be appearing. It has moments of genuine hilarity, some bravura performances, some great singing, impressive ventriloquism, audience participation that brings tears to your eyes, colour and movement of the candy kind, and a plethora of double entendres of the “did he really say that?” variety. But there is a deal that is off too (not a reference to the racy innuendo) which stops this Cinderella from being a true treat.
Did you find the gypsies’ camp?
One or two of them, yes.
Some thirty years ago, the London Palladium was well known for its presentation of Christmas pantomimes; old fairy tales and children’s stories given the star treatment. 2016 sees the return of the big scale pantomime to the beautiful old theatre. There are lots of stars, too, and big scale sets and costumes – all designed to justify the steep ticket price: non-premium seats retail for about £70 each.
Michael Harrison’s production of Cinderella, now playing to packed houses of tots, children and adults at the London Palladium, seems to have an unclear idea of what it is mostly trying to do. It’s more Cinderella jigsaw than pantomime; oddly shaped sections fit together to create a kind of whole. Just.
Six authors are credited as contributing to the adaptation of the original story from Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm: Alan McHugh, Julian Clary, Paul O’Grady, Paul Zerdin, David Mcgillivray and Steve Delaney. Four of those presumably perform the material they write given, Clary, O’Grady, Zezinho and Delaney are all in the cast. But the multiplicity of authors leads to barring styles and a hiccuping narrative.
Original songs from Gary Hind (score) and Alan Hind (lyrics) don’t add coherence or indicate a particular style. The tunes are instantly forgettable and, largely, poorly sung, with diction being a fantasy for the most part. Andrew Wright provides uncharacteristically tepid choreography which the ensemble perform with desultory discipline, carefree half-enthusiasm.
Ian Westbrook’s sets are pitched perfectly and do their job well. The audience is easily transported to a pretty, pastel coloured storyland town, a magical forest and, of course, the palace for the ball. It’s not cutting edge, but it’s heartwarming and nostalgic. And it provides a more than suitable backdrop for stunts that see many characters airborne, not just the Fairy Godmother.
Costumes are more problematic. Hugh Durrant ensures Holden, O’Grady and Clary are always fabulous decked out, with Clary changing costume for every entrance, upping the camp couture stakes as he does so.
But the very best costumes in Cinderella should be reserved for the Prince and for Cinders herself after she has been graced by the Fairy Godmother’s spells. Here, they are not. Equally, the wicked sisters have costumes which seem childish compared to O’Grady’s, even though he plays their mother.
The balance is wrong, not just with the costumes, but with the show as a whole. The focus is not on Cinderella, sadly, it’s on the supporting characters who seem to have had all the attention and care – and stage time – lavished upon them. It’s no surprise that characters like Buttons and Dandini and Baroness Hardup have significant roles: what is surprising is that those roles mostly do not concern Cinders or the Prince.
This might be understandable if Cinderella herself was played, like so many other parts are here, by television identities if not stars. But the role is played by the luminous Natasha J Barnes, who effortlessly lives up to the star power promise she displayed so thoroughly in Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre.
Barnes sings beautifully, although she is never given music equal to the pleasures her voice offers. She acts with sustained grace and warmth, bringing a true Princess element to everything she does, and she holds her own against diva, renowned homosexual and puppet alike. Her sense of the ordinariness of Cinders is perfect and the bright promise she shows for being a loving Queen (one day) to her people makes her irresistible.
Barnes is especially good because she is not a television star and so can’t name drop or name check her show, her career, her books, her rivals, the way some others can, and her Prince Charming is neither princely nor charming. Lee Mead is woefully inadequate as the Prince, his performance as unruly as his dishevelled locks. He seems disinterested and dull, putting the pallid into the Palladium.
Even when the narrative is skewed in his favour, he does not rise to the occasion. Absurdly, Mead gets to sing two Lloyd-Webber hits, Any Dream Will Do and Love Changes Everything. Barnes does all the vocal work in the latter, and in the former, effectively Mead’s signature tune, given his connection to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Mead is simply bad. His costumes do him no favours, but he seems more vagrant than Prince.
As Buttons, Paul Zerdin is, in contrast to Mead, stylish, personable, wry and bloody funny. Zerdin is a skilled ventriloquist and his “cheeky pre-adolescent” puppet, Sam, is a genuine source of amusement. The stage lights up when Zerdin is at work. He ad-libs well and does truly funny audience interaction sequences, including the obligatory sing-a-long. His scenes with Barnes are a treat.
Amanda Holden emphasises the lack in her lacklustre Fairy Godmother; her singing is thin, cold and pitchy; her characterisation begins and ends as that of a television talent show judge; only her frock dazzles as a Fairy Godmother should.
Another creature from the world of television is Count Arthur Strong a fictional creation from Steve Delaney. The Count plays Baron Hardup, or rather says lines Baron Hardup would say – he is always the Count. It’s not very funny to watch and he is hard to hear, but he doesn’t ring the bell of inadequacy as others do.
In the most curious of roles, Nigel Havers appears as himself, letting the audience in on the fact he has been asked to play the Lord Chamberlain because he is “the thinking woman’s crumpet”. There is a running joke about how little Havers has to do, and that is true, but Havers knows how to make the most of something small (as Clary might have said, probably did).
Together with Clary, these four performers, Zerdin, Holden, The Count and Havers provide the evening’s most anticipated and rewarding moment: a list song, with multiple repetitive actions, called If I were not in Pantomime.
Choreographed with razor sharp precision by Wright and executed with sprightly single-mindedness (any lack of concentration could result in a serious mishap) the quintet give their all, wielding unlikely props in a ever-increasing assembly line of pain scenarios. Watching Havers bash his own face with a cricket bat never gets old. This sort of number is a pantomime tradition and this one is an exemplar of the type. Smashing in every sense.
Clary gives the kind of serenely filthy, impossibly camp performance that those who shell out £70 for a ticket would howl about if it were not delivered. Clary has such an innocent delivery style that the true import of his carefully constructed sentences can take a while to land, but the surface meaning is always clear. Many of his jokes have a gay edge or reference as one expected they would. What would be the point of hiring Clary only to sanistise him? What would be the point of going to see him perform if you were likely to be offended by his quick gay wit?
Most importantly, Clary is blisteringly funny. His antics rock the house with unrestrained laughter, everyone from Grandparent to wide-eyed youngster laughing – not necessarily at what Clary says, but the way he says it: in the delicious anticipation of mirth, albeit mirth with a particular bent. (Ooh Matron) Without Clary, this would be a duller night indeed.
Finally, there is Paul O’Grady’s homage to Cruella de Vil, the satorially splendid, supremely sardonic Baroness Hardup, wicked step-mother to Cinders. It’s a Panto version of Lily Savage, very welcome, less savage and more gilding-the-Lily in temperament. O’Grady fits in seamlessly and is measured and fun throughout, from the stylish entrance in a chauffeur driven limousine to the curious Salvation Army number that signifies the end of the road for the wily Baroness.
Hampered by cohorts who lack any coherence or verve (Suzie Chard’s Verruca and Wendy Somerville’s Hernia, both aptly named given their painful performances), O’Grady musters what dignity he can and does a nice line in trash talk of the wicked kind. Wisely, he seeks not to outuenndo Clary, but their scenes have a wonderful expectancy. Each tries to corpse the other and both succeed. Perhaps that is planned. No matter, it is funny.
In the end, this Cinderella is short on storylines of interest to small persons and long on television and show business jokes likely to be perplexing to the same minds. It looks good (mostly) and there are some great effects involving flying over the audience. Apart from the big quintet involving fake violence and pratfalls, the music is sadly forgettable. Barnes is delightful but she really needs better material to shine as she can.
What you will never forget from this Cinderella is Clary, his quips and costumes, and Zerdin, with his singular ventriloquist magic. Their assured comic genius makes the evening edgy and exciting.