Pantomime is such a fantastically British art form; a sarcastic blend of slapstick, farce and musical comedy that feels inextricably interwoven with the festive season, brimming with daft jokes for the kids and innuendo for the adults. But panto and I haven’t always been on the best of terms. Our conscious uncoupling resulted from the traumatizingly formative pantomime experience of my youth where everything was too loud, too overwhelming, and too upsetting because one of the ugly stepsisters hit on my grandpa – while my grandma was sitting RIGHT NEXT TO HIM. None of us went home filled with Yuletide joy that night – witnessing ‘Allo ‘Allo’s Sue Hodge try to chat up a close family member does slightly dull your enthusiasm for the medium, it turns out – and I’ve never been to another panto since. Until now…
As luck would have it, it’s another iteration of Cinderella that’s got me tentatively dipping my toe back into the panto pool. Decreed by this production as ‘the Fairy Godmother of all pantomimes’, Cinderella is the ultimate Christmas classic, a story so familiar you could probably shout out the lines in your sleep – and this new production is filled with enough glitz, glamour and giggles to remind you why it’s one of the ultimate feel-good fairy tales. I entered the theatre with not a little trepidation and brought backup in the form of my grandpa (not the one Sue Hodge tried to pick up; pretty sure that one’s off panto for life), and left it singing, laughing, and wishing for an encore!
Musical director Michael Morwood’s scintillating New Theatre orchestra makes a joyful noise (their rendition of Pure Imagination, a recurring musical motif, is utterly magical) and the production values are uniformly amazing, from the incredible sets and visual effects to the gorgeous costumes and choreography. Pantos tend to keep up to date with the music of their time – remember S Club 7’s appearance in that Aladdin panto ITV used to rerun every Christmas in the early ‘00s? This reviewer fondly does – and Cinderella has its fair share of modern(ish) tunes on its slate from the likes of Beyonce, the Jonas Brothers, Shawn Mendes and Pink, as well as some campy classics by Shirley Bassey and Gloria Gaynor.
The cast is stellar across the board, but it’s Gok Wan as the Fairy Gokmother (!) that’s maybe the most perfect, meta casting choice of all – because who better to play the ultimate fairy tale makeover guru than the man who taught a nation how to look good naked? Have no fear: there’s no nudity here, as the cast are fabulously costumed to Wan’s high standards. Wan leads the show with effortless charm, wrangling some sense out of the wacky proceedings and making a grand entrance into every scene via sparkly explosion or flying moon. He also accidentally lobbed a bunch of toilet rolls into the audience during a deliciously chaotic rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas, which is the kind of quality ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ goof you just don’t get in your bog-standard (pun intended) end-of-year production.
Phil Butler is amazing as the lovably lovelorn Buttons, pining unrequitedly for Teleri Hughes’ lovely Cinderella. Butler channels the keenly controlled mania of Lee Evans (a compliment I wouldn’t give lightly), playing especially well off of his co-master of ceremonies Gok Wan, and had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Butler’s delivery transforms every line into a zinger – I was responsible for the loudest guffaw when Buttons claimed to be in his mid-thirties (alarming evidence that I’m turning into my grandma who, when we saw 12 Angry Men at the New Theatre some years ago, watched Tom Conti walk onstage and proclaimed in the loudest stage whisper in the history of theatre, ‘That’s not Tom Conti, is it? My God, he’s looking old!’)
Hughes’ Cinders and Rob Wilshaw’s Prince Charming don’t have the meatiest material but they perform their roles beautifully and lay claim to the loveliest duet, a surprisingly emotional version of Shawn Mendes’ If I Can’t Have You. They also get to flex their comedic chops during a hilarious cover of Beyonce’s Listen, a poignant ballad broken up by a jealous Buttons repeatedly asking Cinderella ‘Who’s that bloke?’ Dale Evans particularly stands out as Dandrini, the Prince’s best friend, who seems like the lovechild of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender and who shares with Wilshaw an exciting cover of Jonas Brothers’ Sucker and belts out an epic solo version of Pink’s Get the Party Started, backed by the excellent ensemble dancers. (Regan Gascoigne and Nathan Skyrme were on particularly lively form).
But let’s be honest: this show belongs to the ugly stepsisters, and Ceri Dupree and Mike Doyle as the winkingly-named Tess and Claudia own the stage whenever they strut onto it. Doyle, an award-winning comedian, returns here for his seventh consecutive year as the New Theatre’s panto stalwart; a performer hasn’t got this much joyous mileage out of a Welshily-drawled ‘alriiiiiiight’ since Nessa Jenkins, and he wears the ever-living hell out of the eye-poppingly inventive costumes – designed by Ceri Dupree, who also plays the Tess to his Claudia. Dupree, an international cabaret star, is the show’s secret weapon, countering Doyle’s outrageous bawdiness with an elegantly deadpan aloofness – and by God he knows how to wear a gown. The revolving runway of their increasingly garish costumes is a gag that never gets old – at various points Doyle dresses in outfits that variously evoke a bee, a lampshade and set of traffic lights, and early on in the show the sisters emerge from the stage garbed in what I can only describe as nightmarishly horticultural French and Saunders cosplay. Their Shirley Bassey-off alone is something you have to witness with your own eyes.
I’ll try not to spoil too many of the jokes here because watching them unfold live is a delight you should experience for yourselves – and (thankfully for this introvert) audience participation is limited to your standard ‘OH NO IT ISN’T’ fare, not the ‘dragging someone onstage’ nightmares that have haunted my dreams in the run-up to this performance. I was especially delighted to see so many Welshisms in the show that gave it a personal feel: from Buttons’ snarky asides about Ely and Butetown to the prince inviting such nobles as Megan of Mynachdy to the ball, it’s wonderfully tailored to Welsh audiences.
Cinderella was the show which reignited the snuffed flame of panto love in my heart, and for that I’ll forever be grateful. It’s total escapism; a show brimming with joy, jokes and genuineness that made me forget the worries of the world for two hours, and it’s the ultimate family show because it absolutely has something for everyone. ‘The word for it is magical,’ my grandpa declared after it ended, and I couldn’t agree more: not only will you go to the ball, you’ll have one too!
Cinderella is playing at the New Theatre throughout the festive season, and concludes its Cardiff run on 12 January 2020.