Lyric Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 2 December, 2003

If you've ever wondered exactly what the phrase "awkward silence" means, go to a theatre production with a big act finale that's intended to bring the curtain down to prolonged clapping but which just doesn't do so, and instead leaves the players onstage feeling like lemons until the sequence is finally played out. Such moments are excruciating: you feel an agonised sympathy for the poor performers, but freeing them with your applause just isn't on the cards somehow.

The first act of Dan Jemmett's Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith ends with Shereen Patrice as Cinders going slowly round on a carousel, watched by her ugly sisters, to the strains of Billy Swan's 1974 country-boogie hit "I Can Help". It's meant to be the big heartwarming first-half climax, but it doesn't come off. Awkward silence.

Jemmett and the cast of eight with whom he has devised this version try very hard to be different, and succeed. They try almost as hard to be fun, and fail. Setting the story in a derelict fairground is a double-edged move. It provides all the lights and sequins for the ball scene, the novelty of wicked stepmother and ugly sisters entering down a helter skelter, and a mechanical fortune-teller as Fairy Godmother as in the early Tom Hanks movie Big. But for the rest of the two-hour duration the shabbiness is a drag, in a way that Cinders' traditional hearth isn't. There's a modern storyline: the prince (Javier Marzan of the Peepolykus comedy-theatre company) is the heir to the fairground, who wants to build a car park on the site but is naturally won round by love. However, Dandini doesn't work as a lawyer, and not even Bob Goody can fill the place of Buttons with a middle-aged handyman called Frank.

Antonio Gil Martinez and the usually wonderful John Ramm as the ugly sisters, and Di Sherlock as the stepmother, find their malice comes across more strongly than their comedy and so unbalances their characters. Even the Californian hippy-speak of Geoffrey Carey as the magical Madame Zarastro eventually begins to feel not so much groovy, man, as in a rut. The Lyric always aims to ring the changes on standard Christmas fare. Sometimes it works a treat, sometimes not. This time, alas, is one of the nots.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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