Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The most magical of pantomimes!

CINDERELLA

THE ABERYSTWYTH WARDENS , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , January-16-18
CINDERELLA  by THE ABERYSTWYTH WARDENS Last month the EGO® ran a feature on the Aberystwyth Wardens as they prepared to present the most magical of pantomimes, Cinderella, to what proved to be a series of capacity Theatr Y Werin audiences. I went along on the first weekend of the run, to see if they could extend their unblemished record of producing exceptional amateur pantomimes to professional standards – and the result was, of course, a resounding “Oh yes they can!”

In “the pit”, Elinor Powell has assembled her usual dream team of talented musicians, and they get Prince Charming’s ball rolling with a medley of numbers, that allude to what’s in store for the expectant (and already clapping) crowd.

Donna Richards is a seasoned Fairy Godmother and she and her excellent fairies and elves provide a humorous and scene-setting foundation to this year’s production, which is followed by the opening number in the town square of Witteringonaboutnothing. I’d say this was as polished a start to a Wardens pantomime as I can remember – testament to the skills of this year’s creative team, which once again includes well-renowned choreographer Ciaran Connolly. This starter for ten (out of ten) instantly produces over 300 beaming smiles in the auditorium, to match the twenty or so cheery faces on the stage, who are all breathing heavily as they are met with a wall of applause at the climax of the song.

This season’s title role is split between Maeve Courtier-Lilley and Angharad Gwyn and it’s the former who skips into the hearts of the audience on this particular afternoon. She is instantly likeable, believable and possesses the perfect blend of youthful exuberance and innocence. Everyone in the room is instantly on her side and there are dozens of little faces (many of them sitting atop of shiny ballgowns) that are in complete awe of our heroine from the outset.

Cinderella’s leading man is, of course, the dashing Prince Charming, this year played by regular Wardens ‘baddie’, Alex Neil. I’ve reviewed Alex on several occasions and am probably repeating myself here, but he is as reliable and consistent a performer as any in the Wardens’ company and his portrayal of the prince this year is typically slick. I’ll give Carl Ryan (who plays Dandini) his own paragraph later on but the two of them make an excellent combination and when they are on stage, you feel completely safe in their hands and it’s quite clear that they have a rapport that extends to far more than learning lines together.

The role of Buttons (which is ultimately the glue that holds the pantomime of Cinderalla together), is played by Marcus Dobson. Dobson has played the comic role in the Aberystwyth pantomime for several years and he just gets better and better. I’ve used so many superlatives in previous reviews to describe just how good this guy is, that I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and simply write him an open letter:

Dear Marcus,
Go pro.
Best wishes,
Alan.

Of course, such flippant advice is far easier said than taken but in December, I travelled to Basildon to watch one of the Wardens’ most talented exports (Sam Ebenezer), take part in Aladdin. Sam was outstanding (as I fully expected him to be) and to be fair, the show in the Towngate Theatre was very enjoyable with superb production value. However, as funny and polished as their well-paid, experienced and full-time professional was in the role of Wishy Washy…….Marcus Dobson was infinitely better. I’ll leave it at that.

The last time the Wardens performed Cinderella the legendary combination of Richard Cheshire and Ioan Guile played the Ugly Sisters, but with Cheshire otherwise committed this year, how would the Wardens reshuffle their pack? Well, in a particularly brave move, the gruesome twosome (who first appear in blue and yellow feathered busbys to the tune of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies!) are played by Wardens’ Chair Julie McNicholls-Vale and last year’s Mrs Trump – Rae Lewis. I use the word “brave” because (a) filling the crystal slippers of Messrs Cheshire and Guile would be a tough ask for anyone as you simply cannot manufacture several decades of chemistry and (b) burley blokes dressed in outrageous costumes in this context is invariably inherently funny, and so just walking onto the stage used to get them belly laughs before they’d even opened their mouths. Having said that, performance skills and having complete commitment to the role is a fantastic combination and these sassy sisters have both attributes in abundance. As a result, they make it work and are particularly hilarious in the “If I were not upon this stage” routine.

Playing their equally ghastly mother is Wardens legend Theresa Jones, who is utterly flawless. She must be the first name on the ‘teamsheet’ when it comes to casting the panto each year as since her days of a knee-slapping principal boy, she has never failed to deliver. Despite playing a baddie, she receives a wonderfully warm reception as she takes her bow at the end of the show.

Ioan Guile this year plays Baron Hardup (Cinderella’s Dad) and is typically on the money. This isn’t the gloriously nonsensical role that we’ve become accustomed to but, looking as fit and spritely as ever, Guile illuminates the stage whenever he’s upon it and it’s clear that the love and affection that the ‘panto faithful’ have for this man knows no bounds, epitomised by his initial entrance being greeted by a hearty cheer.

It was inevitable that the absence of Richard Cheshire coupled with a break from the ordinary in the casting of Ioan Guile and Carl Ryan, was going to have an impact on the ‘funniness’ of the panto; I think it’s fair to say that this year’s fare caters more for people who are far less childish and innuendo-hungry than me! Having said that, whilst there might not be the quantity of sheer hilarity as seen in previous years – there is definitely the quality. The “Who’s House? (sic)” gag involving Guile, Ryan and Dobson is as brilliantly executed a scene as I’ve seen in any pantomime (and they did exactly the same routine in Basildon). It had what I like to call “the shoulder factor” – where you can see and feel shoulders going up and down due to the laughter of every single person in the audience building uncontrollably throughout the scene. Similarly, the aforementioned “If I were not upon this stage” routine is as daring as it is ‘tight’, and there are audible gasps in the audience every time Julie McNicholls-Vale nearly takes Ioan Guile’s head off with her golf club! Last, but by no means least, the ballet scene involving Guile and Ryan is quite simply comedy genius on a Morcambe and Wise Christmas special scale. I had tears rolling down my face and just did not want it to end. I still find myself laughing about it now – several weeks later.

Before I come full circle to Carl Ryan, I must praise this year’s ensemble, hardly any of whom I recognise from previous years but all of whom did a sterling job of maintaining excellent levels of energy and enthusiasm and providing some real character and truth to the story. Furthermore, I was most impressed by the cameo roles of first time principals Laura Hughes, Sion Hurford and Gwion Jones, the latter producing the stand-out vocal of the night alongside Alex Neil as they led a high octane (and high octave) delivery of the Glee classic, “Don’t Stop Believing”. I’m confident that all three of these young performers have bright futures ahead of them.

So, back to Ryan. This is a difficult one for me because if there’s a bigger fan of him being fabulous and flamboyant in gold Lycra then I’m yet to meet them so in one way, I felt a bit cheated when he walked on wearing a sumptuous velvet jacket and well-fitting leggings! However, I need not have worried because within seconds, he had taken ownership of the stage (as he always does) whilst demonstrating his versatility in this break from his sparkling tradition. There is a magnificent medley of Take That songs towards the end of the Panto and, whilst all of the participants are polished and clearly rehearsed within an inch of their lives, my eyes were still drawn to Ryan who knows no other method than to ‘empty the tank’. Perhaps the defining moment of Ryan’s journey this year is him leading the company in a rousing rendition of Copa Cobana in the Prince’s Ballroom, where he is dressed to the nines in turquoise velvet and the focus is on his leadership and dance skills instead of his fake-tan and glitter. It works and is a fine example of his diverse range of skills but having said that, it’s apparently Aladdin next year so I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that he’ll be the one popping out when that lamp gets rubbed!

It’s inevitable that the cast are the ones that take the majority of plaudits in any review like this because ultimately, they’re the ones before our eyes for the entire show. However, the Aberystwyth audiences are extremely knowledgeable and one of the biggest cheers of the night is reserved for Elinor Powell and her live band, who have once again been the soundtrack to our evening and without which, there is no magic. Ciaran Connolly has repeated his feats of last year combining a sense of humour with contemporary choreography and, quite simply, wringing the best out of every member of the company. Finally, Richard Cheshire has once again directed a brilliant show and whilst personally, I miss him being on the stage, for as long as he’s directing the panto we’ll always be treated to a phenomenal spectacle – all for £16 – it’s ridiculous value really…….

Visually this panto is profoundly magnificent and this is a perfect example (of which there are many) of the skills of the lighting, technical, back-stage, costume and many other departments who help make this panto a success year on year. The woodland scene in the first half is particularly breath-taking as dry ice creeps along the bridge to the sound of Louise Amery tinkling her upper ivories. The duet between Cinderella and Prince Charming in that scene (Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years”) is perhaps the most moving moment in the pantomime but it’s the song that accompanies the transformation scene that perhaps sums up the whole show – Jennifer Hudson’s “One Night Only”. What I mean by this is that for one night only, Aberystwyth audiences are taken to a different world. A world full of fun and fantasy, comedy and community and most importantly of all, the feeling of wanting just that little bit more. Well, there’s only 11 months until the next show and I for one can’t wait.

STOP PRESS: Just before going to print I managed to catch a second performance featuring Angharad Gwyn as Cinderella and since then, I’ve been asked about half a dozen times which one I preferred! I can honestly say that they are equally stunning and both bring something different and refreshing to the role. Prince Charming is a very lucky guy this year!

Reviewed by: Alan Rock

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