“Where there is kindness, there is goodness; and where there is goodness, there can be magic!” Perhaps the son of a fellow reviewer had it right: this production of Cinderella is a little ‘girly’, though the programme’s front cover, and centre page cast and crew lists, are a boyish shade of indigo. Either way, it’s quite an elaborate set, not leaving very much to be pictured or imagined, but nonetheless ensuring the eclectic Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch pantomime audience is on the same page throughout.
There’s a determined attempt at inclusivity, with a large number of musical numbers derived from chart music, and it’s with the benefit of hindsight that I more fully appreciate how seamless the chosen songs fit into the narrative. More than that, there were one or two things that I had reservations about the younger generation appreciating as I sat in the theatre. Such concerns had disappeared with a little more thought. A case in point: a full length rendering of ‘Make You Feel My Love’, which I recall was released by Billy Joel, had me wondering if younger audience members might be a bit bored by it, especially as there was a part of me that thought it didn’t seem to sit all that well with the rest of the show, boisterous and celebratory (or otherwise, this being a panto, boisterous and villainous). But, of course, far more recently, the same song had become re-popularised by Adele.
If last year’s Aladdin pantomime in the same theatre (the one which, regular readers may recall, brought me out of a 20-plus year hiatus from attending and enjoying panto) waited until the words-on-display sing-along to indulge in a moment of chart music, this year’s Cinderella is something of a compilation album of relatively familiar popular songs. If you’re a theatre regular, don’t be put off by this – there are several nods to musical theatre, too, particularly in the song that bookends the production, ‘Spread The Love Around’ from Sister Act The Musical, and Act Two opens with a number from Dreamgirls, ‘One Night Only’ (Geddit? If not, ponder on the plot of Cinderella). An instruction to “sing out!” was reminiscent of Mama Rose in Gypsy, and the large balls unleashed at curtain call reminded me of a very similar occurrence in the 2008 West End revival of La Cage Aux Folles.
It does not feel like a jukebox musical, however. If anything, with a number of actor-musicians displaying their instrumental talent on stage, it feels like a part-gig, part-panto. A nice and comfortable atmosphere is created very quickly thanks to the Fairy Godmother (Etisyai Philip) and Buttons (Alex Tomkins), and it appeared to be merely by a process of elimination that the children (and the children at heart – goodness me, there were grown men booing away loudest of all at this opening night performance) naturally worked out Baroness Hardup (Georgina Field) to be the antagonist.
Paradoxically, Hardup had a streak of likability about her, in part as she seemed to express surprise at not being booed, but mostly because of Field’s sublime singing vocal.
Not all the jokes subscribed to the Christmas cracker philosophy of being so bad and unfunny they unite everyone in expressing disappointment in their mediocrity. A mixture of corny and decent punchlines, combined with Tomkins’ ad-libs during what I call the parish notices, kept the show going at a jaunty pace. There could, arguably, have been a few more opportunities for the call-and- response for which panto is so famed. But the breaches of the fourth wall are so long-anticipated that the children (again, however ‘children’ may be defined) really go for it, and it’s never overdone.
This being Cinderella, the audience is treated to two dames, ‘ugly’ sisters Kylie (Carl Patrick) and Miley (Simon Pontin). Prince Charming of Chelmsford (Jamie Noar) is suitably handsome, possessing an assertiveness that suits the character perfectly. And for all the happiness in this glorious panto, I have never heard so much sympathy from an audience as there was expressed for Buttons, the big-hearted guy who has a lot of love to give but nobody to give it to.
A lively band led by Joshua Goodman gives excellent support to a show with plenty of heart. Engaging from beginning to end, the 2 hours 40 minutes running time (longer than, say, The Phantom of the Opera) whizzes by. This is a spirited production that builds on previous successes at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Indeed, a new standard has been set this year. This panto genuinely has something for everyone and is absorbing and enjoyable from start to finish. Oh yes it is.