You can’t go wrong with the Nottingham Playhouse panto, which is less a show and more an institution. Kenneth Alan Taylor, having just turned 80, directs his thirty-fourth pantomime, and it’s the same endearing combination of local jokes, unembarrassed sentimentality and crowd-pleasing sing-a-longs that keeps the Playhouse’s Christmas show high up on the seasonal round-ups. There are no celebrities here (at least, not of the kind that anyone outside the town would recognise), nor are there any noticeable shifts towards the irony or self-parody that characterise new pantomime. Its safeness and reliability (most of the running jokes were present and correct when I last saw Taylor’s Cinderella in 2011) are part of the charm, and the 2017 iteration has charm in spades.
Kelly Agredo and James Nicholson (the latter in his professional debut) are a winsome central couple, going through the meet-cutes, waltzes and temporary situations of the classic Cinderella narrative without a trace of embarrassment. Nicholson in particular knocks it out of the park with his infectious enthusiasm, especially in his duets with loyal servant Dandini (Adam Pettigrew); his pep and guilelessness refute any cynicism. The central duo are perfectly balanced by Tim Frater’s adorable Buttons, so hopelessly in love with Cinderella that the production even flirts briefly with shipping the two of them, before turning Buttons’s attention back to his main role in keeping the kids in the audience on side. It’s all beautifully romantic and earnest, dressing the leads up in an array of sparkling costumes and showering the stage with glitter.
There is space for some wryer humour, mostly in the glorious and regularly show-stopping performance of John Elkington’s Bella, partnered ably by Darren Southworth as Donna. The two have great rapport as the ugly stepsisters, and Elkington strikes a perfect balance between wholehearted participation and a witheringly undermining bathos. There is a lot of good-natured ribbing at the expense of the production’s sponsors, Nottingham City Transport, and of the (beautifully painted, but quite obviously flat) perspective scenery. Even more fun, naturally, are the moments when things go wrong. Combined with Rebecca Little’s Aunt Devilla, the three villains come into their own when nearly corpsing at costume and scenery mishaps, maintaining a pleasing irreverence.
At thirty-five, I am simultaneously too old and too young for the panto, at least to judge by the musical references, which skip from Queen’s Somebody to Love to Scouting for Girls’ She’s so Lovely, and some desperate googling tells me that the dance sequence at the ball that brings the house down (and forces the whole audience to its feet) is from something called Watch Me by someone called Silentó (and after a week of seminars trying to explain to my students who Sisqó and Coolio were, I’m feeling pretty acutely aware of my dearth of current music reference points). A lovely touch is the use of Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole’s arrangement of Somewhere Over the Rainbow when Buttons sings the song to Cinderella; when Cinders picks up the melody, however, it switches to Judy Garland’s more melancholy version as she pines for the absent Prince Charming. Elsewhere, Bette Midler’s The Rose makes for a beautiful soundtrack for the Prince’s search for Cinderella, while variations on In the Bleak Midwinter dominate the incidental music.
The panto is, fascinatingly, doubly dated. The larger-scale datedness is in the callbacks to music-hall, especially the singalong to ‘Let’s all sing like the birdies sing’ (and all credit to Elkington and Frater for managing the obligatory and interminable get-the-kids-on-stage bit with patience and kind jokes), creating a nostalgic feel. The more immediate and jarring datedness is in the topical jokes, the most recent of which alluded to the 2011 royal wedding. Given the massive publicity around Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s walkaround in Nottingham city centre literally the day before, it’s absolutely criminal that the company didn’t let a line about ‘The Prince is coming to our village!’ land. But they did at least drag new Artistic Director Adam Penford, having taken over the job that morning, up on stage, subjecting him to public initiation by making him tweet with the birdies.
At nearly three hours long by the time they’ve gotten through all the birthdays, families are going to need an extra bag of sweets/glass of wine to keep everyone in their seats. But the good spirits, sly humour, sparkling design and unabashed enthusiasm make the time fly past.
Cinderella is on until 20 January 2018 at the Nottingham Playhouse. Click here for more details.