Oxford Playhouse
Opened 5 December, 1998

To be perfectly frank, I was not relishing my second Cinderella within four days; even the programme-cum-activity pack for Oxford's pantomime contains some of the same games and pastimes as its counterpart for the Lyric Hammersmith's show. However, the Playhouse's sole in-house production this year in fact approaches the Platonic ideal of mainstream panto.

Production values are as big and bright as can be: I lost count of the number of outlandish outfits the Ugly Sisters get through in two hours, and Cinders is transported to the ball in a coach drawn by real miniature ponies. Writer and musical supervisor Paul Knight has assembled a score to which the word "eclectic" does not begin to do justice, ranging from "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" and a fairly serviceable rap for Buttons to "Nessun' Dorma" and what will inevitably be known as the British Airways aria; Rosie Ashe's operatic Fairy Godmother is fairly successful in walking the fine line between serious musical performance and self-parody. Just once, quite early on, Emma Flett as Dandini even slaps her thigh.

Above all it is a welcome relief to see a Christmas show of this scale and nature whose cast list is entirely devoid of B-list showbiz "names", around whom the even flow of the script is forced to bend like that of time around a black hole. The performers here have been cast because they will perform in the show, not faff around it. Don Gilet's Buttons works the audience a treat; Brian Parr and Christopher Scott may labour as the Ugly Sisters, but they certainly work up the required head of steam to keep things hurtling along; Nicola Fulljames as Cinders herself is one of music theatre's young dependables. Yes, sponsors Thames Trains and sweetie suppliers Marks and Spencer get brief namechecks, along with local references to the likes of the A34 diversion and Radiohead; the opening number even includes a chorus line of hunt saboteurs. And yes, the kiddies' squealing will drown out most of the soppy bits. In other words, it is exactly, excellently what a straightforward pantomime should be, with the only frills being those on Hernia and Verruca's dreadful frocks.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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