King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 21 Jan 2018
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
This year’s King’s pantomime – Cinderella – is a more plot-driven and less reliant on effects than many of recent years. It also lacks some of the more interactive elements of panto, but for sheer fun and laughter it scores very highly indeed.
The Scottish pantomime tradition is remarkably resilient, and Cinderella is surely the most popular of them all. Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott may have been doing this for more years than any of us care to remember, but still keep things extremely fresh. Indeed, their respective characterisations seem to grow with age.
Stewart’s Fairy May still struts, dances and fires out quips, but mixes the fairy godmother magic with a cynical, at times almost surly edge, that is ultimately much more endearing than any attempts at saccharine sweetness. Stott’s evil stepmother Hibernia, meanwhile, may still be ludicrous, but underneath the over-the-top nastiness there is a portrait of an Edinburgh radge that is much more realistic than countless screen portrayals.
Despite Gray’s claim to be ‘an actor in his late thirties,’ it would be more than creepy if his Buttons had any romantic yearnings for Cinders. Instead he is simply the big daft laddie who advances the plot not one iota but for whose presence the audience are endlessly grateful, from the moment he crosses the stage on a Segway, only to report ‘I fell’ in the way only he can.
That plot is more in evidence than has sometimes been the case in recent years, which may be unavoidable with Cinderella but is still very welcome, especially considering that there are younger attendees who will not be seeing it for the umpteenth time. The transformation sequences are a little rushed, and the ‘crystal slipper’ never even mentioned until it is left behind, but at least it all hangs together.
This is accompanied by as much fourth-wall-breaking as you could want. The wee and fart jokes of recent times have also been replaced by a great many jokes aimed at adults, some of which hardly qualify as much more than single entendres.
Many extraneous routines are pared right back. Audience participation, after an early ‘oh no it isn’t routine,’ is kept to a bare minimum apart from Stewart inevitably training his camera on the front rows. This means that interaction with children is absent, as (regrettably) is any form of community singing.
Some elements that have kept popping up recently are also jettisoned – Gray is never heard to say he is ‘no very well,’ for example. This does keep things fresh, and good ideas will always resurface, like those handy visitors from Australia who always seem to get the best seats.
To point out that a couple of the routines are a tad predictable would be like going to the Nutcracker and complaining that the cast can’t stand still, and the cheesier routines notably go down well with the younger members of the audience. There are also a couple of old-school slapstick features that are utterly joyous.
Notably, these are enhanced by Andrew Keay (Dandini), Gillian Parkhouse (Cinderella) and James Darch (Prince Charming). Parkhouse and Darch literally throw themselves into a wall sequence with Gray and Stewart that is a classic of its kind.
Parkhouse’s Cinders is beautifully graceful and poised, and together with Darch’s genuinely charming Prince, makes the kissy-kissy stuff much less of a distraction than it often is.
That the Principal Boy and Dandini are now established as male roles means that opportunities for female performers in professional panto have been diminished. In particular, the genre often seems scared of women being funny, so it is refreshing to see that chance given here.
That it is the Ugly Sisters that have been feminised may not be ultra-progressive, but at least at gives Clare Gray and the excellent Maureen Carr the chance; a chance that they seize with both hands, particularly when they are the ones who get to do that early ‘oh no it isn’t ‘ routine.
The ridiculously costumed pair are called Nicola and Ruth, but this throwaway reference is one of a very few topical references. There is, however, one top-notch political joke.
Stott’s political Hibs remarks excepted, the local asides are also comparatively thin on the ground. However, this hardly matters when the three main performers are so defiantly Scottish, and if not all Edinburgh by origin, are long since local by adoption.
Ian Westbrook’s colourful sets, the energetic ensemble, Stillie Dee’s choreography, the youngsters of the Edinburgh Dance Academy – all are used judiciously. The same is the case for the special effects, with Gray getting to take to the skies for once. The songs, like the jokes, are a mix of recent and more vintage, but also never outstay their welcome.
In the end, however, it is the central trio, with their ad libs both real and fake, attempts to upstage each other, and constant rapport with the audience that make this worth coming back to year after year. There will probably be some who carp, but such joyless souls are not to be trusted. It may be a formula, but so is all pantomime. While they work this hard at keeping it fresh, they can keep going as long as they like.