Glittery converse? A chorus of dancing crabs? A karaoke ball? Cinderella’s one of the prissier entrants on the panto scene, but Tom Wells’ has blown a surreal gust of fresh air through the ruffled skirts of Perrault’s story. Traditionally, it’s had a dignified 18th century magic that’s stronger on fairies, magic and transformations than the other side of pantomime’s magic coin: slapstick, ribaldry and cross-dressing chaos. But this brilliantly offbeat retelling from the Lyric has an anarchic edge that rescues Cinderella from soppiness, as well as from the soap suds of her stepmother’s kitchen.
Krystal Dockery is sweet-voiced but has a little more get-up-and-go to her than her babyish Peter Pan collar suggests: her wide-eyed infatuation with her Prince is a joy to behold. She’s joined at the sink by a chorus of furry mice in dishwater grey, ready to liven up and soundtrack a love story that’s got just barely enough plot to see us through two acts. Tom Wells’s sensitive, heartfelt book is a winning mix of airy romance and heavy duty innuendo. He beefs up the narrative by having Cinderella and Prince Charming hit it off well in advance of the castle ball, as she fishes in the moat for her stepmother’s dinner. “You’ve caught crabs!” beams Cinders, as she bumps into her prince-in-disguise, and the two sing a duet that’s every bit as self-conscious as you’d expect from a love duet between perfect strangers.
There’s more dubious innuendo on offer from Matt Sutton and Peter Caulfield as the Ugly Sisters Booty and Licious: inexplicably Northern, but their accents bring a kind of bluff Chuckle Brothers lightness to their sequinned brand of sauce. There’s no risk of their gentle sallies stealing any of their mother Madame Woo’s green-tinged limelight. On opening night, Sara Crowe performed in a wheelchair after an accident in rehearsal, but inhabited it like a portable throne with the whole stage and audience firmly in her thrall. She’s so brilliantly evil that her actual insults are just a formality compared to the poison that drips from her voice and withers everything she touches. When she rips apart Cinderella’s only dress, you can hear the audience’s hearts break along with the pale blue satin.
It’s typical of a panto that sounds all the traditional notes, but tunes them just a little bit off-key. Director Ellen McDougall produces the nastiest, messiest slosh scene I’ve ever seen in a pantomime: the Ugly Sisters and Cinders slipped around, covering each other in fish paste and beauty cream in barely controlled chaos. And she strikes just the right balance between little knowing touches and off-putting archness: we’re warned that the Lyric’s budget magic means our pumpkin coach will take a little while to transform, but transform it does, and the stage becomes a fairylit wonderland.
Oliver Townsend’s gorgeous backdrops make his weird, curlicued illustrations huge and sparkling. Sweets, songsheets, kids pulled on stage, and a magical wedding walkdown: all the expected panto frivolities are in evidence, but they never outstay their welcome. Like Cinderella at the ball, traditions make their entrance, twinkle in the lamplight, then get lost in the gorgeous crowd.