Writer:: Stewart Nicholls
Director: Alan McHugh
There is no better way to get into the Christmas spirit than to visit a pantomime and after theatres being closed last year this is doubly true. Theatres rely on the income generated to get them through the year and Richmond Theatre has put on the most classic of all tales, the rags to riches story, Cinderella.
The production has been taken over by an International musical theatre company, Crossroads Live ( also behind Wimbledon’s Dick Whittington), which has a separate pantomime arm that now produces 29 musicals across the UK, so, with so much experience and renowned creative teams behind this production, there are especially high expectations.
The show opens with the Fairy Godmother, Rosemary Ash, coming on stage in a wonderful ornate glittering costume to set the scene for the panto. Except the scene does not really seem set at all. There is very little back story given. There is scant explanation that Cinderella, named for sitting by the fireside after toiling all day, is rehomed at Hardup Hall after the death of the Baron’s first wife. Indeed this production has done away with Baron Hardup and his new wife, who shows her real wicked face after the marriage, altogether and the production suffers because of this.
Cinderella is played by newcomer Oonagh Cox. She is a good choice and sings beautifully in the first rousing solo number, a real musical treat. Unfortunately Cinderella’s character is completely overshadowed by the two sisters. Without the back story, one does not feel particular empathy for Cinderella. As the ugly sisters, a term not used in this production, Darren Bennett along with Bobby Delaney, have sumptuously over-the-top costumes which are a credit to Mike Coltman, the costume designer and soon dominate the scenes with their well written witty lines and camp humour. They play these roles superbly giving the audience the good giggle they expect from panto.
The production is led through the story, as is traditional, by Buttons played by Strictly‘s Anton Du Beke, the big name used in the advertising, in his first ever pantomime outing. Du Beke is an engaging performer, which is good as on this first night there are a few line mistakes and mishaps but he happily makes fun and light of these with ease, joking to the audience. However, his solo singing number is a disaster darling, his singing voice not up to the job.
The first half feels mediocre. There are musical numbers and varied dance from tap to ballet but it feels that the audience is not quite engaged. The second half is much more fun and children are far more interested, all faces glued to the fun. It’s like the writer, Alan McHugh, suddenly remembers that this is panto and there are some really funny scenes, especially the ‘Alexa’ sketch where the adults are treated to an avalanche of double entendres The adults are in stitches and the children laugh along, not really understanding; this part is panto written at its best.
The sets are rather flat, emphasised for comic effect by a plastic tree stump being lifted for the fairy godmother to sit upon, but Cinderella’s coach and horses are not a let-down.
There are some great musical voices on the stage and the ensemble are all good dancers and with Anton Du Beke’s background one would have expected lots of great dance and musical numbers, but they are fewer than expected, and it feels like this show was written without real thought to the talent on stage. The audience are invited to the wedding at the end. A cue for a huge dance/song number? but no, it’s a cue to end and take the bows; disappointing.
Like Wimbledon, the actual pantomime is over quite quickly to allow for call outs for birthdays, audience interaction and Christmas songs. However, the call outs fall flat and the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, though funny, inevitably runs too long, but all is forgiven as the audience like Du Beke.
Overall with the cutting of main characters and story running short it doesn’t feel well told. There are the ingredients of a pantomime, plenty of eccentric costumes, role reversal, slapstick and humour aimed local to the Richmond audience, but it all feels cut up, especially the first half and the choice of songs at times feels bizarre. Perhaps the particular problem is that the sense of pantomime is lost, a story of good versus evil, virtue overcoming adversity, and is replaced with the platitude that ‘dreams can come true’. Panto for the commercial age.
Runs until 2 January 2022