Old Vic, Bristol
Opened 4 December, 2003

Under the artistic directorship of David Farr and Simon Reade, the Bristol Old Vic has burst back on to the theatrical map. Their 2004 spring season, formally announced this week, shows they have no intention of pausing for breath: a collaboration with the National Theatre on Paradise Lost, another with the National Theatre of Bergen on a collection of folk tales from the team whose Grimm package at the Young Vic in London revitalised the field, an African-set version of Brecht's Mother Courage to be directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, and in general a programme that sets out to forge links with local, national and international talent. Even the youth theatre productions in the Old Vic Studio next March are relative biggies, Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit.

The Old Vic ends 2003 with another novel twist on classic material. Cinderella is not a newly written update of the tale, like Dan Jemmett's patchy version at the Lyric Hammersmith which also opened this week. Rather, it is a staging of a largely neglected work written for television in 1957 by Rodgers & Hammerstein.

There's a fair bit of padding in the music, it must be said, with instrumental segments, reprises, segues and variations. But three or four numbers bid fair to stick in the mind. In the first of them, Cinders' song of resignation to being confined "In My Own Little Corner", both Rodgers' melodic phrasing and performer Sophie Bould's singing style make it easy to imagine the original occupant of the role, Julie Andrews. After the interval, Daniele Coombe and the delightful Sirine Saba stop the show briefly during the ball episode with the "Stepsisters' Lament" that the Prince has fallen for someone other than them. And the final reprise of the show's big theme number "Impossible"/"It's Possible" begins with Kate Graham's otherwise businesslike Stepmother suddenly clad in a teddy and perched on high amid a huge pink heart.

This is one of the most "Pierre et Gilles" moments of director Timothy Sheader and designer Laura Hopkins' joint vision. The palace ballroom, too, looks like something out of the work of those French photo-artists, due not least to Oliver Fenwick's bang-on lighting. Elsewhere, Cinderella and her family live in a kind of 1950s austerity, but even the various shades of drab seem somehow brighter than normal: Hopkins and Fenwick have made discreet but clever use of the ultra-violet lighting deployed elsewhere for moments of full-scale black-light puppetry.

It's a fairly brief show (written to last "two TV hours", so to speak, on stage it comes in at under an hour and three-quarters including interval), and a relatively insubstantial one by Rodgers & Hammerstein's standards. But it straddles the worlds of tradition and innovation deftly, and so is well placed to satisfy those who want Christmas fare that's not panto but is palpably seasonal.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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