Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15
Opened 11 December, 2007

The magic of theatre doesn't always work. At the children's matinée I caught at Stratford East, Dr Theatre was only fitfully ministering to Buttons' semi-laryngitic voice; failures of a more mechanical nature meant that, right at the climax of Act One as we were being assiduously psyched up for the big pumpkin-to-coach/mice-to-footmen transformation scene, matters were halted for 15-20 minutes until the crucial scene change was sorted out. It certainly took the wind out of the performance's sails, especially with an audience populous in tinies who were ready for a break by then anyway; but Trish Cooke and Robert Hyman's updated adaptation had not exactly been setting the place alight up until that point either.

The setting is the fictional French Caribbean island of Guadalumpa, with Baron Hardup translated into an aristocratic beatnik painter named Baron Sans Rien, and the Fairy Godmother working her magic through tropical rainstorms. The under-orchestrated sparseness of Hyman's pre-programmed-sounding score and the bright simplicity of Jenny Tiramani's design (Cinders' sisters sport sets of locks that look as if each has a Dayglo squid on her head) combine to create a feel that might be called toybox RnB. Prince Leo Charming is a self-satisfied B-boy with his homie Don Dini, while Debbie Korley's Cinders is delightfully no-nonsense, informing Leo to his shock that he ain't all that.

A lot of thought has gone into jazzing up the story, but not enough into retaining core elements of the experience. The ugly sisters are neither noticeably ugly nor played by men in frocks; in the drag role as Cinders' stepmother Woz Mine-Izzmine, Michael Bertenshaw (looking rather like Dee Snyder of 1980s rock band Twisted Sister) is the baddie, which is plain heresy for a dame. The entire supporting cast numbers two, so no big chorus choreography; nor any "slosh" routine, and only one mild double entendre, which may just have been my dirty mind. It all led a little girl a few seats along from me to pipe up plaintively, "This isn't Cinderella!" Moreover, Stratford's traditionally exuberant audience atmosphere can combine with the liberation of panto in unhelpful ways: the genre frees grown-ups to behave like raucous kids, but some just turn into selfish brats. The production, like the fraudulent Woz, writes a lot of flamboyant theatrical cheques, but doesn't have the funds to pay out on them.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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