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Oxford Playhouse - Cinderella

2nd December 2005 to 15th January 2006.

From Oxford Daily Information.

Now that Little Britain Live has come and gone, Oxford's hottest-ticket for fans of men in drag, audience participation and predictable punchlines will be the annual Playhouse Pantomime. This time around, they're serving up Cinderella, and in a traditional telling with a plot that deviates very little from the more popular versions of the story. The programme's statement by director Ian Talbot suggests the ambition may have been to offer something more original, however, providing "a new dimension to this classic tale", and he also notes that "the creative team prefer to think of it as a musical show with a healthy dash of pantomime".

The tone is much cooler and moodier than many previous Playhouse Pantos. A few trees are scattered across the stage suggesting a forest clearing. Additional sets representing the story's different locations are wheeled or lowered into this space. The stage-craft was generally quite rough and began to trespass on my goodwill. The writing was variable, with mid-rate musical numbers and perfunctory episodes padding out some pure, audience-delighting Panto moments.

The drag quotient was met with two Ugly Sisters who fluffed pretty much every joke offered to them, and a principal boy with trousered legs and facial hair. Denying us the possibilities of a grand Dame, the Queen was played, in fact, by a woman, Lesley Nicol, who also took the role of Cinders' Fairy Godmother. Ms. Nicol was, simply, the best thing about the show. She managed to find scansion in the awkward couplets where all else failed, regularly hit the right high key of camp, and ad-libbed smoothly when roadblocked by the occasional hiccup.

Cinderella's rag-to-riches narrative can, of course, be bent to fit politics both left and right of centre, and here I saw a conservative slant, and delivered from a very parochial perspective. Later comments, around the prince choosing to wed a commoner, and his promise to deliver tax cuts rather than any meaningful social reform, highlighted this right-of-centre subtext. What's more, the offered concept of "commonness" seemed to be Dibley-bound, straight out of a country kitchen aga-saga fantasy land. This panto is as solidly middle-class as its audience.

The Playhouse have had a rarely-rumbled run of Christmas successes, and it's sad to see them in the ditch for the season. I hope for a return to form next year, and might even set about being a very good boy all year round, just so Santa could bring me my ideal: a Phillip Pullman penned Playhouse Panto. How perfect that would be.