It’s panto season and Britain’s theatres are stuffed to the brim with big wigs, gaudy fabrics and blokes in dresses. The Old Vic is no different; having employed Ian McKellen on dame duty for the last two years, they have drafted in Stephen Fry to rework Cinderella for the stage.
He has taken on a double duty, writing the script and also lyrics to go with the music of Oscar winning (The Full-Monty) Anne Dudley. Fry’s Cinderella is billed as a post-modern panto and opens with a be-suited Sandi Toksvig in a flying green leather chair and sporting a rather fetching moustache. For this alone, you have to admire his chutzpah. However, this particular festive offering fails to deliver on the considerable promise shown in its earlier scenes.
There are things that work very well; Buttons (played by Paul Keating) has his own love story, falling for Dandini; while the sweet and slightly drippy Cinderella and her obsession with cleaning products are all nice touches. However there are fundamental problems with this production, the main one being that it really does not seem to know what it wants to be. For the smattering of children in the audience there was not enough to engage them it wasn’t silly enough and there wasn’t enough for them to do. And the things that were aimed at them, such as the slapstick and the cream pies, seemed to be thrown in as an afterthought and not done with much conviction.
For the adults in the audience there were long stretches of time when nothing much seemed to happen at all and then, suddenly, when the momentum seemed to build again it was not sustained. Director Fiona Laird must take a degree of responsibility for this; the pacing was simply all over the place.
Having been written by Stephen Fry, of course the jokes were clever and witty and, in places, quite rude but there simply weren’t enough of them. It was left to the actors to inject some life and sparkle into proceedings. Here, Paul Keating’s Buttons is officially the star; at turns sweet and innocent, with a wide-eyed, ‘I’ve had too much sugar’ look about him, he was also capable of engaging the audience young and old, with a knowing wink a braver writer would have concentrated solely on the story of him and Dandini.
Pauline Collins was also excellent as the exasperated and down at heel Fairy Godmother. Perhaps the very best thing about this production were the mice: these tiny white puppets were really the highlight of the evening.
There were flashes of something truly radical and inspiring at the heart of this production, but Fry failed to capitalize on much of this and many initially engaging ideas went to waste. In trying to be and do too many things, in trying so hard to be different and daring, as well as retaining the traditional and child friendly elements of panto, the whole enterprise suffers, crumbling under the weight of its admirable but muddled intentions.