Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch and Lee Simpson, the trio behind Improbable Theatre, have within the past year or so constructed Shakespearean sets out of Sellotape, made a musical out of a collection of cautionary tales for children (the sublimely grotesque Shockheaded Peter returns to the Lyric in February) and improvised dramatic biographies of guests as they are interviewed on stage; all this they have done with captivating inventiveness, almost unqualified success and a genuinely infectious enthusiasm and joy for the possibilities and process of playing on a stage (in every sense). How do they now fare with a pantomime?
The short answer is: very well indeed, though not quite magnificently. The Improbable trio and the Lyric's artistic director Neil Bartlett have taken Angela Carter's rather shadowier, more questioning version of the Cinderella story and created a dramatic scaffold out of it: crucial narrative points and particular phrases remain, a few landmark songs have been added (devotees of the ridiculous musical elements brought to The Right Size's shows by Chris Larner will be similarly delighted by his contributions here such as "Cheese In Moonlight")... but apart from that, the cast of seven are let loose to improvise the story. As one of them says in the introduction – or, at least, said on the press night – "We tell it a little different every time, and sometimes we're gonna get it wrong, and we don't care!"
The trademarks of Improbable design – Sellotape and newspaper – are present and correct amid faux-Victorian backdrops and the dependably impressive illusions of Paul Kieve, reaching their zenith in a wondrous ballgown-and-carriage transformation scene of black-light puppetry. Angela Clerkin is a no-nonsense Cinderella; Martin Freeman as Buttons keeps most of the dramatic plates spinning as he copes with both her and Richard Katz's big child of a Prince; Jonathan Coyne and Andy Smart risk a few extremely adult innuendos as the Ugly Sisters.
When watching Christmas shows, I always rely to an extent on audience response, and that at Cinderella's press night was curious. It does not pretend to be geared specifically towards children, but rather to appeal to youngsters and grown-ups alike... and not in a euphemistic sense. However, in an audience with no more than a reasonable smattering of kids, the peals of youthful exuberance came to be outnumbered by the calls of adults, and it was hard to tell whether these interjections were made in a spirit of joining in or a misplaced sense of licence to prat about. This note of uncertainty aside, though, Improbable have demonstrated once again that storytelling is a hugely enjoyable game, and that simply being present at the telling is a kind of participation.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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