Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Theatre review: Cinderella, a Fairytale (St James Theatre)

I'd not had any plans to see the St James Theatre's Christmas show, Cinderella, a Fairytale, but an enthusiastic recommendation from another blogger coupled with a decent last-minute discount deal saw me fill an empty evening with Sally Cookson's production, originally seen in Bristol. As well as avoiding the pantomime route, Cookson has also dropped the more familiar French version of the fairytale, devising her version with the cast principally from the Brothers Grimm's Aschenputtel, with elements from the Chinese version Yeh-Hsien as well. So Ella (Lisa Kerr) is a girl whose widowed father dies soon after he remarries, leaving her in the care of a wicked Step Mother; and there's still a Prince seeking a wife at the Palace ball. But instead of a fairy godmother there's a flock of magical birds to help Ella on her way, and when it comes down to fitting a lost slipper onto the girls of the kingdom, a couple of toes might have to be chopped off it helps nab a royal husband.

A cast of five, plus two musicians, serve as a chorus of birds dressed in woolly jumpers, long johns and NHS specs, and throw on extra bits of costume to play the human characters (although there's actually not that much doubling up, the story gets told with the minimum of characters necessary.)

Kerr, who'll be straight back at this theatre next week in a very different show, is an endearing bowler-hatted, tomboyish Cinderella who first connects with Thomas Eccleshare's adorable asthmatic, bird-watching Prince by mimicking the calls of her beloved birds. There's a Step Sister and Step Brother (Lucy Tuck and Tom Godwin) who at first present a nicely sinister pair, like a boy-girl version of The Shining twins, but actually as the story goes on, and Godwin throws a lot of gusto into Step Brother himself getting subjected to indignities by his mother, he becomes an unlikely ally for Cinderella. And in the only concession to panto, there's a male Step Mother, although Craig Edwards' gleefully sadistic take on the character is far from a standard dame.

This is really more of a storytelling theatre approach that revels in a loungey musical style and its own brand of quirky humour - when Eccleshare's Prince starts to fall in love with the mystery woman in the woods, his main symptom is an uncontrollable urge to croon. The performance's whimsical style looks at first like it could be irritating but it soon settles down into something that's having a lot of fun on its own terms and in inventive ways, and a small audience almost entirely made up of adults tonight quickly seemed to warm to the show's particular charms.

I don't know how well this show did over the Christmas period, hopefully better than it is now as it deserved an audience. But the St James is a new venue and artistic director David Gilmore is presumably still finding his feet, which may explain a few decisions I've found odd, such as keeping this show running this long after the holidays - however hard you try to put across that this isn't a panto, by the tail end of January people are likely to be all Cinderella'd out. But it does mean there's some good discount deals out there for the rest of this week, and if you see one this funny little show is worth your time.

Cinderella, a Fairytale, based on Aschenputtel by the Brothers Grimm and Yeh-Hsien by Tuan Ch'eng-Shin, is booking until the 26th of January at the St James Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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