Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Magic at Work


The Wardens , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , January 10, 2011
Cinderella by The Wardens Dominic Cavendish, writing in 1999, distinguished two separate levels in appreciating pantomime. The first is the pleasure to be had simply in experiencing the pleasure of others; “vicariously” as he put it, “through the gurgling delight of other people’s children”. That is not a bad thing in itself but the second is to be “closely involved, experiencing a state of wonder.” At its peaks the Wardens’ “Cinderella” delivers a state of wonder.

It opens with a difference. Julie McNicholls has broken away from type-casting. Her long established Fairy Hapus has been traded in for saucy Landlord’s daughter, Cherry. Her character does over-depend on a one-joke “come taste my cherry tarts” but after securing her handsome man she contradictorily turns all coy. Character consistency hardly matters in panto and she gets to lead the chorus, a couple of dozen strong, in a rockingly good rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”

Her replacement as the Hairy Gobstopper (“Excuse me, Fairy Godmother!”) is Rachel Crane. That octave-spanning voice is held on something of a rein this year. She has a cluster of delightful tiny fairies to assist her magic along with a perky trio of elves. First joke of the show is the declaration by their leader that “We’re the National Elf Service.”

“Cinderella” provides the best plot for the double act of Richard Cheshire and long-time collaborator Ioan Guile. As the man-hungry step-sisters they sing “It’s Raining Men”. All dignity is cast aside as skintight, PVC mini-dresses are donned. In tribute, maybe, to Ginger Spice the lurid costumes are topped off with red glitter-strewn wigs.

Structurally, the show has changed. There are fewer one-liners in favour of extended comic sequences, the decorating scene has been dropped, the old “garage/ sausage” joke revived and the ghosts in the wood are replaced by an escaped gorilla.

The Wardens attract a captive audience, to say the least. But the whooping, whistling and cheering is in response to moments of sheer bravura. Act one closes with a costume change of such baffling speed that I had to think really hard about it. And then the curtain is dropping on Cinderella somehow seated behind a full-size white horse with beating wings and the audience is clapping at the sheer visual élan of it.

The way that jokes spread and circulate has been the subject of PhD theses. The Surrey-Hampshire greeting “air-hair-lair” I heard on Christmas Day, a trip to the sales (“Well, was the Virgin Megastore a disappointment?”) just a week back. What the Wardens happily throw overboard are the all the limp references to Apple, Orange or the X-Factor. (When a writer now so much as mentions Facebook it is an indicator of desperation.)

In its place they resuscitate a song as old as “the Twelve Days of Christmas” and bring the audience to ecstasy. That Wellington boots, toilet rolls and old socks feature among the many items is just the beginning. It is the depth of teamwork, the improvisation, the sense of sheer manic enjoyment that carry it. As for Ioan Guile his growling vowels could extract innuendo out of the weather forecast. (“A warm front is fast approaching.”)

“Cinderella” is not big on villainy and it ends with step-mother reforming. But Theresa Jones, of the high arched eyebrows, attacks the Baroness with relish. “I didn’t call” is an opening line to John Corfield’s put-upon Baron Hardup “I sir-creemed.” When Angus Marshall’s bouncy “hiya kids” Buttons is slow to obey her she gives him a smart kneeing in the groin. Angus Marshall also gives some real poignancy to Buttons’ unrequited love. The last thing any male ever wants is to be told he is a girl’s “best friend.” He does get to at least steal a fifty pence kiss from his beloved.

Choreographer Jan Lynton delivers a string of high energy musical numbers. It is not just that her corps of eight front-line dancers can do a snappy tap dance. They smile, they radiate the enjoyment of doing it. In scene four Cinderella goes into the wood to meet by chance her prince. Richard Cheshire populates his woodland with rabbits and foxes, an owl, four little blackbirds. The song chosen is “I’ve been dreaming of love’s first kiss”. It is beautifully sung, it comes from “Enchanted” and enchanting it is, utterly. Even the lovers’ kiss, from the view of the stalls, looks as real and as romantic as it can be.
The second act opened to spontaneous applause. The Prince’s Ball has enough sumptuous lilac and satin to do justice to Covent Garden putting on “Rosenkavalier.” As a vision it is simply, sumptuously, gorgeous.

The Wardens is able to get its cast of fifty on stage thanks in part to an artistic team that has long been working together. That conductor and musical director Elinor Powell can have eight tatty frocks thrown in her face, probably by accident, all with good humour says it all.

One of the pleasures of the Aber show is the opportunity to see young performers given the lead romantic roles. Will Alder had to step up at short notice from chorus to the role of Dandini. With a plot line added of master and servant swapping roles he took on quickly that sauntering air that comes with a sense of natural entitlement. Prince Charming is not exactly a role of great dramatic breadth but Richard Morris gives him nonetheless a sense of genuine lost love. As for Jenny Boote her Cinderella moves from charm to undiluted radiance.

New Year’s Day I took in a pantomime matinee a couple of hundred miles away. With a full house, great lighting and effects, a couple of television names and a seasoned stage comic it was a good show by any standards. But the local stage school did not have the aplomb of Aberystwyth’s. The Wardens, on a budget anywhere between a tenth and a twentieth of the other show, took “Cinderella” into areas of theatre magic the other show could only hint at. Lastly, when a reviewer has to duck from an Ugly Sister brandishing a water pistol it gives the term “immersive theatre” a whole new meaning.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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