What’s the difference between a pantomime and a Christmas show? Many people won’t admit this, but the latter is often a better-taste version of the former, performed for the kind of market for whom this doesn’t represent their annual outing to the theatre. Shorn of the shonkiest elements and with a handful of gestures towards a modern sensibility, the Christmas show is – for those like myself who cordially loathe pantomime – a chance to have our whimsical, sentimental cake, and eat it without being subjected to eyebrow-raising routines with dwarfs, mothballed horse costumes, and single-entendres, joylessly recited by a cast of ITV desperados who, well into January, are forced to publicly pretend there is something behind them other than their own careers.
Sally Cookson, a colossus of the Christmas show show genre, struck commercial and critical gold in 2011 with Cinderella and last year her fabulous Sleeping Beauty at the Bristol Old Vic utterly outshone its rival The Light Princess at the Tobacco Factory. This year, the venue has gone back-to-basics and revived Cinderella with a composite cast from its successful runs in London, Birmingham, and the original here in Bristol. Cookson’s innate good taste sensibly banishes most audience interaction, but one convention defiantly retained from its ugly sister is the Pantomime Dame. For all its challenge to gender norms with the romantic leads – Isabella Marshall’s resourceful heroine, Joey Hickman’s quivering-but-endearing Prince – the support strays into rather old-fashioned territory. Like with Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys, it’s amazing what you can get away with if you can genuinely make people laugh.
And boy, do these Dames have them rolling in the aisles. In a clever update to the exploration of gender norms, Cinderella’s brother inadvertently reveals himself to be a better hook for the Prince than his gangly sister (another triumph for Lucy Tuck following Sleeping Beauty), and so is compelled to go to the ball in drag. Both accompany their mother who is played by a man. A rather bold (and presumably unintentionally topical) joke about the brother using the ladies’ loo is a little on the nose, but both Craig Edwards and Dorian Simpson chalk up huge and repeated laughs. It would take a painfully determined member of that mythical “PC Brigade” to find offence here.
That said, the local branch of Momentum would be well-advised to give it a skip for their Christmas outing. Despite inventive contemporary flourishes, Cinderella’s escape from domestic drudgery is still entirely underwritten by the financial resources of her royal beloved. Son of a popular and droll monarch, he is a gawky Prince but a truly charming one, with a decent line in jazz scatting. His rescue of her may not be all that dashing, but it is still a rescue nonetheless.
Where the production achieves something genuinely subversive is its commitment to the macabre quality of its Grimm original. Some of the younger children who had found their way to the press night performance were thrillingly horrified by the violence – wonderfully and inappropriately gory and eliciting gasps of I-can’t-believe-they-did-that from the older members of the audience. The age-appropriate guidance of six is emphatically one to take seriously. This was especially true for the poor moppet who, during the interval, was regrettably struck with business end of my briefcase, containing a six-pound laptop and two hardback books. After tonight the kid will, like Johnny Cash’s Sue, grow up fast and grow up mean.
The somewhat simple circumstances of the Tobacco Factory’s in-the-round performance space were, yet again, lit and decorated with great flair. The suggestive hints of a fairytale forest setting completely ensorcelled, presenting in the memory far more depth and bewitchment than much more ambitious stagings.
A shape-shifting cast of five represented over a dozen human characters and remarkably individuated birds. The stage manager requires a backbone of osmium to co-ordinate the repeated costume changes – cast members disappearing from one of the four stage exits as a flamingo only to appear seconds later from the opposite side of the room as member of the Royal family.
Bianca Ward and Jess Hardy’s costuming, as well as achieving restrained comedic value throughout, was occasionally employed by Chris Pirie’s direction to impressive thematic effect. In a bold unification of each end of the Oedipal spectrum, the death of Cinderella’s adoring father was marked by the onstage wardrobe transition of Edwards into the evil stepmother, helped along by his deeply unsettling children, who seemed to have walked straight out of the Overlook Hotel, flatly garlanding him with his sombre dress. The identity and sentimental investment in hats, gowns and, of course, footwear was nicely judged and suggested a rather unusual perspective that fashion both imprisons and liberates, never more so than when negotiating gender.
Overall, this is an impressive and festive end to the theatrical season. Of all the yuletide traditions, instigating a rule that a Sally Cookson show has to run somewhere over Christmas might just be enough to see us safely and slippered into the next year.
Cinderella: A Fairytale is on until 22nd January 2017 at the Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol. Click here for more details.