Charm is the one quality this show has in abundance: all the more delicious because it is a contemporary story that also manages to be a parable for our times. And how many new musicals do you know of which that can be said? A gender-reversed re-telling of the Cinderella story, it is set in a glitzy but recognisable London, shot through with delightful observation and witty humour, with lovely songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Installed at this theatre for the forthcoming festive season, it will prove a satisfying alternative to pantos – traditional or parody – while still keeping more than one foot in the current overheated political climate. Its themes of sexuality, standards in public life, corruption, greed and media celebrity are as fresh today as when the show first appeared in 2011. This production is also a wonderful celebration of the great core strengths of UK musical theatre: collaboration, commitment and excellence. It succeeds both as drama and as performance.
The stage of this intimate 230-seater theatre is filled with a vivacious, mostly young cast of 16, singing and dancing away to a band that sounds a whole lot bigger than MD Sarah Morrison's four musicians in the gallery might suggest: the orchestrations are out of this world. Upcoming director-producer, Will Keith (and he's also a brilliant choreographer), first directed this show three years ago at the new Union Theatre in Southwark. Since then, his vision of it has matured greatly. He has brought some of the team with him in this new venture, notably joining producing forces with one of his ‘ugly sisters' then, and now (Clodagh), Michaela Stern. Incredibly, in association with Kyle Tovey, in just three months, they have put this package together and got it into the Off-West End, and a damn fine piece of work it is, too. As a producing debut, it is ambitious, attractive and timely.
Handsomely designed with sleek yet urban grit by Justin Williams – all turquoise and fuchsia pink with a hint of beige – Keith has brought a newcomer in to design the costumes, Nicole Garbett, and she makes a stunning debut, making the cast look gorgeous. Also, somehow fitting it into his packed schedule, choreographer Adam Haigh has worked wonders in just a week and a half, fusing movement to Keith's direction so you cannot see any joins. The detailing in both in one of the glories of this production: there is never a moment when something fascinating is not happening, with each individual member of the ensemble being a specific character with their own story to tell. And Jack Weir lights it with a nifty combination of showbiz flashiness and naturalistic realism.
There are great performances, too. Luke Bayer, in the title role, having just been a fine alternative Jamie (everyone's talking about him), here makes a fascinating character out of the downtrodden West End chancer making good: he is at his best with the blissfully wonderful songs given to his character by Stiles and Drewe – his treatment of ‘They Don't Make Glass Slippers' elevates it into a boldly strong dramatic moment. Playing opposite him, Buttons here becomes ‘Velcro' (geddit?), in the shape of Off-West End star, Millie O'Connell, who has gained quite a following through her stellar presentation of Anne Boleyn in ‘SIX', and handles her part with imagination and authority. Their winning chemistry is key to the success of the production.
As the other men in his life, Cinder's two love interests – the pinpoint exact Chris Coleman as campaign funder Lord Bellingham, and the suavely louche Lewis Asquith as bisexual politico, James Prince – are always on message; but the stage more properly is seized by Clodagh and her equally horrendous sibling, Dana (Natalie Harman), who exult in the earthy cheapness of their humour and the brutish vulgarity of their aims. A more intriguing role, however, is that of Ewan Gillies striking campaign fixer, William George, who is blessed with a part that doesn't take a completely predictable path: his second-act ‘The Tail That Wags The Dog' is one of the S&D's most masterful creations, and Keith and Haigh rightly make it one of the centrepieces of the show. Meanwhile, Tori Hargreaves makes a very convincing job of the other love in Prince's life, Marilyn Platt, and Melissa Rose scores a little success with her part of assistant to Prince's manager, Sasha.
The ensemble is brilliantly dynamic and as busy as anyone else: Ben Darcy, Savannah Reed, Luke Byrne, Laura Fulgenzi, Danny Lane, Jade Bailey and Thomas Ball. All of these have been able to contribute original ideas to make their parts so much more than just ‘background': they become the city around the other characters, with each moment of their on-stage presence meticulously thought-out and well-crafted.
The number of characters here suggests a certain complexity in the plot and that is one of the challenges faced by the book writers, Drewe working with Elliot Davis. They do a pretty good job, but neither is first and foremost a dramatist, and this does show: the dramaturgical focus of the script is often elusive – eg. the conclusion is placed in the hands of Velcro. Why? I'm sure the writers had a reason for doing that but is it a dramatically satisfying reason? That point highlights, I think, the extent to which the role of Robbie (the stand-in for Cinders) is fatally weakened. There is a model for this, as we know: in the 1980s there was a sensationally successful revival of Vivian Ellis's ‘Mr Cinders': in that 1920s spoof, the book writers, Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman, wisely made every single decision that mattered in the plot that of Jim Lancaster (played in the original production by Bobby Howes). Their chief target also remained firmly fixed in their sights: a satire of the British class system. The problem here is that there is no such sense of agency given to Robbie, who is doomed to be a mainly reactive figure, rather than one able to take the initiative – he follows others' leads, rather than driving events along; nor does the re-telling have any clearly identified objective in mind.
But, the bustle and energy of Keith and Haigh's production will probably keep thoughts of such problems out of the minds of less attentive pleasure-seekers in the audience. Probably. There is much besides to relish in this pretty and punchy show, plenty of sweet sentiment, salted with tangy social critique. And the songs are glorious. Enjoy!
Writes book, music and lyrics of new musicals. Currently completing, ‘Generation Rent’, a contemporary college-reunion comedy. New project: ‘Kate The Great’, set in the City. Previous productions with: Iris Theatre; LOST Theatre; So-and-So’s Arts Club; Chichester Festival Theatre (National Theatre Connections); Courtyard Theatre; Arc Theatre, Trowbridge; Harlequin Theatre, Redhill. Also for Royal Court Young People’s Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe, National Youth Theatre.