Gillian Lynne Theatre, London
Andrew Lloyd Webber may have composed better scores than his new Cinderella, but he has certainly never created anything camper, and no, I haven’t forgotten Sunset Boulevard. This collaboration with Oscar winning book writer Emerald Fennell and lyricist David Zippel (City of Angels, ALW’s own The Woman In White) actually feels like something of a return to form, not because it’s much like anything else in the Lord’s canon thus far, but more because, after well over two decades, a new musical by this country’s most successful theatrical composer actually feels, once again, like a major West End event. School Of Rock doesn’t count as it was already a solid Broadway hit by the time it opened at the same Gillian Lynne Theatre that Cinderella is now gaudily occupying.
Of course, the pandemic has something to do with the feeling of triumph – any large scale production that gets off the ground at the moment feels like a win – as does Lloyd Webber’s heroic attempts over the last 18 months to get theatres open while other impresarios (not counting Nica Burns) either couldn’t or wouldn’t. More than that though, Cinderella is a thumping good time in the theatre, a rousing, brash, eye-popping bit of escapism filled with terrific performances and an irrepressible confidence in its own ability to show us a good time. Which it does. In spades.
In a way, it’s a shame they didn’t opt to call the show ‘Bad Cinderella’, after the memorable number Carrie Hope Fletcher’s heroine introduces herself with, partly so as to distinguish it from the more traditional Rodgers & Hammerstein musical fairy tale or countless pantomimes, and also because they’ve basically Elphaba-ed her up. Gone is the meek scullery maid with the cosy fairy godmother and penchant for befriending small rodents, and in comes a roaring Goth iconoclast, armed with a spray paint can, an acerbic wit and a ton of attitude. Fletcher displays cracking comic timing, as well as her trademark silver-toned belt, and succeeds in creating a character who is as tough as the DMs she stomps around in, but also with a real warmth and undertow of vulnerability. The beating heart of the show is in very safe hands.
Elsewhere, it’s a riot of camp opulence, as Laurence Connor’s romp of a production comes on like a turbo-charged fusion of outlandish fashion show, gay fantasia (the young men of the Royal court are given to disporting in little more than leather pants and harnesses, giving me uncomfortable flashbacks to Magic Mike Live, and a couple of ill-advised clubbing nights in Vauxhall in my youth) and The Real Housewives Of …Versailles. The extravagance of Gabriela Tylesova’s costume design – think Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier in bed with Cecil Beaton – is matched by her own ravishingly over-the-top sets and Campbell Young’s equally crazy wig creations, and the whole thing is lit to twinkly, technicolor perfection by Bruno Poet. It looks a million dollars, several million dollars actually.
Out-camping everybody and everything on stage is Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Cinderella’s socially ambitious Stepmother, in a joyous, rampaging comic tour de force. With a voice that suggests she has a mouth full of marbles (designer of course) and a laugh like a braying donkey, she conjures up memories of, variously, Fenella Fielding, Cruella DeVil, Joanna Lumley’s Patsy Stone from AbFab …and Dame Edna. She’s simply astonishing, spinning comedy gold out of some fairly hackneyed gags, and it says much for the vital, funny work of Laura Baldwin and Georgina Castle’s stunning but horrid Stepsisters that they don’t disappear into her shadow.
If Rebecca Trehearn’s not-as-wholesome-as-she-looks Queen seems a little muted in comparison, she’s still vivid and amusing, with a fabulous, if underused, singing voice. In this updated, upended version of the story, there is no fairy godmother but there is The Godmother, a slightly demented, darkly glamorous plastic surgeon, reminiscent of Tommy’s Acid Queen, to whom Cinders goes for a makeover before attending the climactic ball. Gloria Onitiri has precious little stage time in the role but is truly thrilling, and deliciously weird. Personally I would like to have seen a whole lot more of her. Caleb Roberts’s Prince Charming is similarly unconventional (go see the show to find out why) but great fun, bowling in unexpectedly late in the second half.
The real male lead of the piece is Charming’s younger brother Prince Sebastian, who gets one of the best songs, a rueful ballad ‘Only You, Lonely You’ where he expresses yearnings for this decidedly unromantic Cinderella. It requires a true tenor range and, at the press performance I saw, it was delivered stunningly by understudy Michael Hamway. There’s been a lot of Twitter chat lately amongst theatre enthusiasts about how covers and understudies are keeping the industry going at the present time. It’s all true. Here, Hamway gives a performance of such insouciant charm and technical skill, he ought henceforward to be at the top of every casting director’s list when they’re lookIng for modern romantic male leads: that’s how good he is.
The other breakout songs are the exquisite ballad ‘Far Too Late’ which would not sound out of place in Phantom and the stirring, folk-inflected ‘I Believe I Have A Heart’ performed with a theatre-shaking passion by Fletcher that brings the house down. Elsewhere, Lloyd Webber’s score feels like comic opera meets Eurovision Song Contest, and, if not particularly memorable and seldom subtle, it matches the baroque excesses of Joann M. Hunter’s stylish choreography and Zippel’s nicely turned lyrics. Fennell’s book is fast-moving and often very funny, if not perhaps quite as fresh and original as one might have expected given her track record.
This is the first show since Cats to utilise the Gillian Lynne’s unique feature of being able to revolve the entire stage taking the first half dozen rows of the Stalls with it, and, while it doesn’t really add anything significant, it’s an extra touch of magic to what is already a richly enjoyable night out. An authentic crowd pleaser where you can really see where the cost of your ticket went, it genuinely feels as though we are looking at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first solid smash hit for quite some time. Is it perfect? No. Will the majority of paying customers care? Also no. If the Gillian Lynne is looking for a new occupant within the next three to four years I’ll be extremely surprised. To recycle a cliché, I had a ball.