Cinderella at the St James theatre

Published December 19, 2012

Cinderella, it’s a panto, isn’t it? Oh no it isn’t.

Certainly not at the St James theatre where the Tobacco Factory and Travelling Light production, which received much applause when first staged in Bristol last year, is taking a fresh look at the tale of a young girl mistreated by her stepmother.

Yes, that stepmother is played by a man. Yes, there’s a cheeky helping of audience interaction. But these are nods to panto rather than the full song sheet-dropping, sweetie-throwing, topical reference-crowbarring experience. There’s not a flashing costume with amusingly placed fruit in sight nor a hint of a fairy godmother.

That’s right, the magical mater doesn’t have to (fairy)dust off her wings for this Cinderella. Here Lisa Kerr’s confident, defiant heroine controls her own destiny with the help of a few feathered friends delightfully depicted by the rest of the five-strong cast and the most basic but charming of winged puppets.

If any character feels fearful, it’s Thomas Eccleshare’s loveable but socially uncomfortable prince, who’d rather be out in the forest with a pair of binoculars than in at a ball with a hoard of admirers.

Even Craig Edwards’ stepmother is out of the ordinary, as he brings more vindictiveness, frustration and anger to the role than just plain old boo-inducing evilness.

So un-panto is this Cinderella, which draws heavily from the Grimms’ dark version of the tale, that body parts are lopped off on stage with the help of a cleaver. In truth, I was concerned for the youngest audience members, but not a squeal or whimper could I hear.

That is the treat of director Sally Cookson’s production, the tone is pitched perfectly. Cinderella’s back story is touching, her relationship with the prince tweaked so it’s less about her salvation and more about love, the step-siblings, who begin as though they have stepped out of The Shining, are humanised and rounded. Benji Bower’s music, which is played live as it leaps from blues to scat to birdsong, is a constant delight, while a warm wit brings belly laughs like early Christmas presents.

Don’t get me wrong, I love panto, but this production offers something less brash and more honest, something less showy yet more creative. It tells its age-old story with heart, truth and creativity. What more could you want this Christmas.