Music: George Stiles
Lyrics: Anthony Drewe
Book: Anthony Drewe and Elliot Davis
Director: Will Keith
Reviewer: David Guest
A charming revamp of a classic fairy tale is casting a spell at Charing Cross Theatre in the run-up to Christmas – though cries of “He’s behind you!” have the potential to be taken the wrong way in this rather more adult show with a gay twist.
The panto season will bring plenty of outrageous and colourful versions of Cinderella to theatres up and down the country but the delightful Soho Cinders brings a wealth of young and gifted talent to the always enterprising London venue.
If it seems as though it’s been around for a while, then it might be because the show has a welcome sniff of Lionel Bart’s chirpy Sixties musicals about it. However, this collaboration between the mighty George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (lyrics and book) and Elliot Davis (book) is as recent as 2008, when it was first showcased, followed by a concert version in 2011 and a premiere at the Soho Theatre the following year.
It was revived at the Union Theatre in 2016 and some of the cast reprise their roles in this cheerful production, a promising first producing venture for director Will Keith (who also directed at the Union), with his Theatre Syndicate London company.
This contemporary take on Cinderella, infused with plenty of political jibes and set in the heart of London’s entertainment district, is as fluffy as a delicately whipped meringue, yet it’s hard not to fall in love with the memorable songs and excellent performances here.
In this update, Cinders becomes Robbie, a young student working at his late mum’s launderette, who falls in love with a mayoral candidate seeking to take the capital by storm. There’s plenty of mobile phones in evidence – and a crucial plot point depends on one – so maybe they met via electronic dating on Cindr.
Naturally, the course of true love never did run smooth and the affair is put at risk by a pair of raunchy and ugly sisters, a noble benefactor and the mayoral hopeful’s fiancé.
It is the storming performances that give this pleasing show its fourth star, with stand-out leads and an exceptionally accomplished ensemble.
Luke Bayer has been needlessly submitting an application for most promising lead performer in a number of musicals and workshops this year; as Robbie he proves yet again that he already possesses enviable star quality. He discovers both the heart and the humour among the froth and his second act ballad They Don’t Make Glass Slippers is a sensitive showstopper.
Lewis Asquith (one of the performers returning to a role they took at the Union) is a strong James Prince, described by a tongue-in-cheek heard but not seen narrator as an oxymoron for being “clean-shaven but with a beard,” capturing the moral uncertainty of a politician whose ambition and emotions are conflicted.
The lovable Buttons is transformed into Velcro, who works alongside Robbie in the launderette, with Millie O’Connell turning in another powerful performance as the lovelorn friend since childhood. She achieves considerable chemistry with Bayer and her Let Him Go duet with the wrong-footed but surprisingly accepting Marilyn (a robust and impressive Tori Hargreaves) is another musical highlight.
Of the villains of the piece Ewan Gillies is in particularly fine form as a wolfish campaign manager with political ambitions of his own (his number The Tail That Wags the Dog is deliciously scheming) with Chris Coleman as a slimy Lord Bellingham, far from the Fairy Godmother he claims to be.
Much of the comedy is down to the hilarious Michaela Stern and Natalie Harman recreating their vulgar Union roles of the ugliest of stepsisters, Clodagh and Dana, far from their chirpy and innocent Eurovision namesakes, always finding the wrong Mr Right. Their on the nose comic timing is an instant hit with the audience and they reach the unrefined heights in I’m So Over Men and the gloriously satirical Fifteen Minutes, in which everyone and everything from Gemma Collins and Bake Off to Piers Morgan and Love Island is unceremoniously name-checked.
From the moment the ensemble appears on stage for the vivacious opening number, Old Compton Street, Adam Haigh’s choreography is fun and spirited, with Keith’s direction reflecting the overall jollity but carefully showing the moral dilemmas and light political commentary the piece contains.
The theatre’s recent use of a traverse style, with the audience seated on opposite sides of a square, allows the layout used in the Union’s production three years ago to be recreated, though somehow it seems slightly awkward here. However, the pink and blue set by Justin Williams is striking and good use is made of the few movable pieces of scenery.
If “life’s a circus on Old Compton Street” as one of the lyrics declares, then Soho Cinders delivers all the fun of the fairy tale with a sparkling modern edge that gives the Charing Cross Theatre another hit.
Runs until December 21 2019 | Image: Pamela Raith