The Union Theatre
I first heard of Soho Cinders nearly 10 years ago when Douglas Mayo, now editor of BritishTheatre.com, excitedly told me to check out two new songs he'd heard by up-and-coming composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe, then best known for Olivier-winning musical Honk! and new songs for Mary Poppins. Performed by Gareth Gates and Oliver Tompsett, these first tracks were the haunting duet Gypsies of the Ether and the heartfelt ballad They Don't Make Glass Slippers. Although I knew only these two songs and that Soho Cinders was a modern Cinderella, I couldn't wait to see it on the stage, especially after more of the show was presented at a concert, A Spoonful of Stiles & Drewe, in 2008. All was revealed in a one-off concert version of the musical in 2011, which spawned a popular cast recording, but it was another year before a fully staged production premiered at Soho Theatre. Despite the involvement of some of the UK's best musical theatre performers, this production was uneven and a little disappointing after so much anticipation. Now, a new production at The Union Theatre has stripped it back to deliver a fresh, joyful show with a cast of talented young performers.
The core story remains the same, turning Cinderella into Robbie, a young man living and working on Old Compton Street. After the death of his mother, his “ugly” stepsisters have turfed him out of home and taken over the family's laundrette, leaving Robbie in desperate straits with only his best friend and work mate, Velcro. While taking advantage of money from wealthy admirer Lord Bellingham, Robbie has also fallen for his Prince Charming, bisexual ex-swimmer James Prince who is hoping to be nominated to run as London mayor. Engaged to be married to a woman and scared of public opprobrium, James feels he has to keep his relationship secret, mostly conducting the affair by phone like “gypsies of the ether”.
Throughout the show's long gestation period, the world has changed – same-sex marriage has become legal, online chat rooms have been replaced by apps like Grindr and there are more openly gay people in the public eye. However, the updated book by Anthony Drewe and Elliot Davis manages to make the story relevant and contemporary and also removes some distractions such as the large age gap between Robbie and James.
Unlike Soho Theatre's version, there is also no “disco” arrangement for one of the best songs, the witty It's Hard To Tell, satirising the difficulty of telling the “gay guys from the straight these days”. Here, and throughout the show, the musical direction and arrangements allow Anthony Drewe's cleverly crafted lyrics to shine through. The songs are a delight, from the ensemble numbers such as Old Compton Street and You Shall Go To the Ball to the touching duets Wishing For the Normal and Let Him Go. They are matched by sharp choreography by Joanne McShane, filling the stage with energy and high kicks.
Joshua Lewindon brings appealing charm as Robbie alongside Lewis Asquith as James Prince and the excellent Emily Deamer. There is strong support from Lowri Walton as James's fiancée Marilyn, Samuel Haughton as his corrupt campaign manager and Chris Coleman as Lord Bellingham. The bawdy, sex-obsessed stepsisters are played at full throttle by the dynamic duo of Michaela Stern and Natalie Harman, brilliantly bringing out the coarse comedy of their songs I'm So Over Men and Fifteen Minutes.
The 17-strong cast, including an ensemble of eight, are skilfully directed by Will Keith. While we may have no actual glass slippers or fairy godmother, this is a magical production full of laugh-out-loud humour and delightful songs – enough to satisfy the most demanding of the musical's fans.
Running to December 22.