Composer: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book: Emerald Fennell
Lyrics: David Zippel
Director: Laurence Connor
Once upon a time Andrew Lloyd Webber would conjure up hit musicals from Argentine politics, feline poems and steam engines. Now, following in the footsteps of Rossini, Massenet, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim and many others on stage and screen, he offers his take on the classic fairy tale Cinderella. It would seem that the composer’s days of thinking outside the box may be over.
Happily, the basic story has seemingly infinite scope for variations and the key to making any new version interesting lies with the twists in the tale. The news that this show’s book is the work of Emerald Fennell, recent Oscar winner for the screenplay of Promising Young Woman, is a more than promising start. If Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods could opt for a not so charming Prince, then why not have a “bad” Cinders at the heart of Fennell’s version? It is a twist that pays dividends over and over, as the delightful Carrie Hope Fletcher puts a mischievous twinkle into the title character’s eyes and a spring into her naughty step.
The twists don’t stop with a bad heroine. Shockingly, Prince Charming is dead before the show starts and then…well no more spoilers. The setting is Belleville, somewhere in the region of France, at some time around the 18th Century. A prank by Cinderella has led to the town losing its appeal and its cash, so the Queen decrees that the only way to revive fortunes will be a royal wedding. The new heir is the wimpish Prince Sebastian, who also happens to be the only friend in the world of the put-upon, bedraggled serving girl Cinderella, and he must find a suitable bride at a hastily organised ball.
Clear messages about anti-bullying, body image and female empowerment are planted throughout the show without ever weighing things down. Fennell’s book and David Zippel’s lyrics merge together seamlessly, setting a tone that is irreverent and spiky but still unapologetically romantic. Fresh, modern and preserving the full flavour of the traditional fairy tale, this is a show with appeal for all age groups.
As Sebastian, relative newcomer Ivano Turco is outstanding, nailing the glorious showstopper Only You, Lonely You in the first act and disco dancing like John Travolta in the second. Rebecca Trehearn, looking like Marie Antoinette, plays the Queen as a tart made good. Both she and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Cinderella’s uncaring stepmother borrow from pantomime with their over-the-top villainesses and their duet, I Know You, is an absolute hoot. Gloria Onitiri also contributes a wicked cameo as the Godmother, in modern terms a sort of make-over consultant for Cinders.
Directing a company of over 30, Laurence Connor stages the show in slick and spectacular style. The whole of the stalls revolves for the ball, repeating a trick seen in this same theatre for the original production of Cats. Gabriella Tylesova’s period costumes and fast changing sets are breathtaking and JoAnn M Hunter’s exuberant choreography brings in exciting modern touches.
Plaudits go to all involved, but it is Lloyd Webber’s name that goes above the title and this emphatic return to form must be seen as a personal triumph for him. Blending the expected ravishing melodies with reminders of his rock ’n’ roll roots, this is perhaps the composer’s most varied and fully-rounded score since Phantom. The show may not live happily ever after, but it should stick around for a year or two at very least.
Booking until 13 February 2022