Fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Carrie Hope Fletcher have waited a long time to go to the ball. The Phantom of the Opera composer’s latest musical, Cinderella, suffered cancelled performances and a delayed opening night due to the coronavirus, but that sure hasn’t dampened its shine.
If you’re familiar with Killing Eve, then you’ll have some idea of the tone which writer Emerald Fennell strikes in this take on the classic fairytale. It’s certainly not a pantomime, where Cinders is typically more hapless and subservient. Fletcher’s protagonist in contrast, with a dark purple lipstick and clothes as unmatched as her wit, opts for rebellion over despair. This is modern, firebrand feminism (see the punchy leading number, Bad Cinderella), and with Charles Perrault’s original looking like a blank canvas in comparison, Fennell spray paints it with colour like Cinderella does to a statue of Prince Charming – who isn’t even the main prince in Belleville anymore.
That would be Prince Sebastian (endearingly played by Michael Hamway for this performance, in lieu of Ivano Turco), who rejects the testosterone of toxic masculinity for a more timid, heartfelt approach to life. Following Cinderella’s act of vandalism, the wedding, far from being a genuine symbol of love, is used as a PR exercise by the Queen (Rebecca Trehearn). Sebastian is the one thrust into the spotlight as his mother desperately searches for a lover, despite his protestations.
It’s easy to see, therefore, why him and Cinderella find chemistry – the fluttering playfulness of the number So Long being a fine example. The pair are so thrillingly subversive of societal expectations and rituals, and in terms of Fennell’s narrative, plot devices such as the glass slipper, the Godmother (Gloria Onitiri) and the ball are fresh and unpredictable. Lyrics from David Zippel are equally cheeky and laid-back, such as rhyming Cinderella with salmonella – yes, really.
There’s delightful little Easter eggs in the set, too, such as designer Gabriela Tylesova’s decision to adorn Cinderella’s family tablecloth with pumpkins. Tyleslova’s intricacies are also formidable in the details her sleek costumes convey – from the mishmash of trainers with high heels for sisters Adele (Laura Baldwin) and Marie (Georgina Castle), to the metallic male outfits for the Hunks’ Song and face masks for Cinders’ encounter with the Godmother – a fitting and tad disconcerting choice considering the wider context.
Particular praise must be directed to lighting designer, Bruno Poet. Master of generating natural lighting in Uncle Vanya, Poet excels again here. The beams on Fletcher during the ballad I Know I Have A Heart work beautifully with Tylesova’s dress design, and the fractured light through the church windows in Act Two is gorgeous to look at. It well and truly glistens. Oh, and if you’re in the stalls, then it’s best you return to your seats in good time following the interval. Unlike other critics, I won’t be saying more than that. On a similar note, the official programme – and indeed, the casting information on the musical’s website – also contains a spoiler, which is far from ideal.
As for the production itself, the ‘scoffy’, formal accent of the Stepmother (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) is grating, and fails to appear convincing. In the second act in particular, lyrics are drowned out by the grandiose score – and I write this as someone who was kindly placed in the front row in order to help me hear better. There is, naturally, a short period at Cinderella‘s beginning in which audience members likely need time to ascertain the tone of the musical, given that the opening number, Buns ‘n’ Roses, does little to invest viewers with it’s drawn-out world building. Could Bad Cinderella have been a better starting song? Most definitely.
Yet these minor issues do not forgo the overall flair that comes from this production – in its writing, its costumes, its lighting and its cast. Cinderella is mischievous musical theatre, and that kind of fun is long-awaited, but very much needed.
Cinderella is now playing at the Gillian Lynne Theatre.
Production Images: Tristram Kenton.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Cinderella’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.