UNLIKE Cinders, you will not go to the ball…unless you have acquired a ticket already. Cinderella has sold out, reward for the ever-rising pantomime pizzazz of Howard Ella’s community capers.
Cinderella may be the most popular of all pantos, but it is the most difficult to write, he contends, on account of the need to fit in so much. “The story is so loved, so full of plot points and favourite moments, it’s very hard to put your own spin on things,” Ella says in the programme notes.
Then add “the breaking of panto norms”: the dame making way for two Ugly Sisters, baddies rather than goodies to boot. Regular dame Graham Smith decided to take a year’s sabbatical, and in his stead comes the new double act of Jamie McKeller, last winter’s Sheriff of Nottingham, re-booted as Cassandra, and Michael Cornell as Miranda, both shaving off their beards but still with a hint of stubble to go with their trouble-making in matching costumes.
They know each other from bygone days, and they work in step as pleasingly as Layton and Nikita’s Strictly Charleston last Saturday.
Typically spot-on casting by Ella, who has a new writing partner by his side too in Gemma McDonald, the Players’ long-serving daft lass with the auburn bubble-perm clown’s hair and rouge cheeks.
Still on delightfully dimwit duty as Buttons, she carries the heaviest comedy load as usual, leading the slapstick shenanigans in tandem with the Ugly Sisters in the hotel spa, breaking down the fourth wall to bond with the audience, ragging them when they are too slow to respond.
Ella suggests that Buttons is “really the story lead”, and McDonald’s ever-energetic, ever-cheeky performance backs that up.
The writers were keen to avoid the danger of Cinderella’s traditional story feeling dated while wanting to be respectful to tradition too: hence Prince Charming and Dandini still being played by women, on the one hand, but Barry Johnson’s Baron Hardup owning the rundown Hotel Windy End (cue bottom burp gags from Buttons and corrections on the pronunciation), on the updated other.
This is very much a Yorkshire Cinderella, playing to its York setting at every opportunity. Radio presenter Laura Castle, so impressive in John Godber’s Teechers at the JoRo in March, makes for a feisty, no-nonsense Fairy Flo, while Teechers’ co-star Sophie Bullivant brings personality to the often dry role of Dandini, especially enjoying her switch with Hannah King’s thigh-slapping Prince Charming.
King’s singing is as strong as ever, not least in partnership with Sara Howlett’s resolute Cinderella in the ensemble number Omigod (a splendid lift from Legally Blonde The Musical). Marie-Louise Surgenor’s Fairy Carabosse takes the singing honours, first in It’s All About Me, then in Three Evil Dames with McKeller and Cornell.
Johnson’s Baron, Geoff Walker’s lackey Flunkit and Jeanette Hunter’s Queen of Hearts, the Prince’s mother, bring bags of experience and panto panache to these support roles; Bernie Calpin completes a trinity of fairies, and Ami Carter’s exuberant choreography finds the principal dancers, senior chorus and young teams in boisterous form.
Highlights? Cinderella’s transformation scene with Fairy Flo, unicorn-powered carriage et al, is a picture indeed, and what better way to open Act Two than with McDonald leading the show’s best ensemble routine, Flash Bang Wallop What A Picture, followed by Cinderella, Prince Charming and the ensemble revelling in Shut Up And Dance. The hits keep coming with Fairy Carabosse, Cassandra and Miranda sending up I Know Him So Well.
Ella gained Tommy Cannon’s permission to reprise a Cannon & Ball slapstick classic, as Cinderella, Cassandra and Miranda push, pull and drag each other off a wall while striving to sing a romantic ballad. Howlett, McKeller and Cornell look exhausted from all their exertions, the audience cheers rising with each tussle.
The costume team of coordinator Leni Ella, Andrea Dillon, Jackie Holmes and Claire Newbald adds fun and flair to the finery, while set designers Howard Ella, Anna Jones, Paul Mantle and Lee Smith turn their hands to all manner of scenes with aplomb.
Musical director James Robert Ball’s band fires up pop hits and musical favourites alike with dynamic delivery, aided by fellow keyboard player Jessica Viner providing the musical orchestrations with her customary zest.
Difficult to write? Maybe, but Ella and McDonald’s setpiece-driven Cinderella is a joyous, riotous start to the York pantomime season.
Performances: 7.30pm plus 2pm Saturday matinee, all sold out. Box office for returns only: 01904 501935.