Cinderella: Bespoke Theatre
The Maltings Theatre & Cinema
30 December 2013
“We are genuinely passionate about what we do and want to create good pantomime. More and more producers and theatres are opting for cheaper productions with overpaid celebrities who, in our opinion, are not worth the money and are certainly not as accomplished as trained actors.”
So thunders the perennial battle cry of Alan Bowles and Morgan Brind, co-founders of the same team that has delivered top quality, professional pantomime to Berwick now for the past four years.
This production of the nation’s favourite panto showed no compromise of standards despite the continuing difficult economic climate. Alan is firm:
“As producers at the early part of our career, we are not driven by profit margins but by the desire to get it right — as the income increases each year, it’s put straight back into the next production. In addition, because we aim to give the show a life after Berwick, we spend more on the Berwick production than we could do if it was only to be used once. A show transfers at a much lower cost than creating from scratch so it makes financial sense.”
Yes, this year we were spoilt with two dames in the lumpen forms of the Ugly Sisters, Melody and Suki, played by dame first-timers Dan Smith and James Peake respectively.
The pair dripped acid and leaked stupidity to unite the audience against a common enemy. Smith and Peake positively revelled in the barrage of boos and the freedom afforded by a sturdy pair of tights.
The evil twins became an unholy trinity, teaming up with wicked stepmother, Davina, played by Natalie Ball. You may remember her turn as the splendidly malevolent Carabosse in 2011’s Sleeping Beauty. Ball has evidently spent the intervening years perfecting her inner bitch. And, incidentally, buying better shoes.
In the best tradition of pantomime the baddies stole the show, but mention should be made of Louise Grantham twinkling as the Fairy Godmother — surely the most thankless role? — and of Ashley Tucker (Cinders) and Finlay Bain (Prince Charming) giving their characters three dimensions when they only deserve two.
As I’ve said in the past, the romantic leads are usually played by moderately attractive people made utterly sexless by lazy writing and acting so earnest it hurts; they have a knack for being characters you couldn’t care less about.
But hooray! Tucker had a pleasing edge to her. Here was a Cinderella that you could imagine ordering a pint and sighing a matter-of-fact “Bugger it” when the Ugly Sisters kick it over. No self-pity, no wringing of hands. Just a grim acceptance that her life is a bit crap.
And Bain? With hair so big it either had planning permission or very understanding neighbours, he demonstrated great timing, a strong singing voice and a relaxed stage presence as he bantered with Ross Graham’s equally laid back Dandini.
It was a proud moment seeing Berwick’s Ross Graham in a main role this year, bringing to the stage the same confident performance that he brings to community theatre productions. While Bain could be viewed as the Gary Barlow of the cast in terms of dancing ability, Graham proved capable of throwing shapes with the best of them.
Talking of which, the junior chorus did a fine job with the dance numbers. How choreographer Alan maintained his cheeky Buttons persona in the face of a dance troupe not fully confident of their lefts and rights stands testament to a will of steel. Not only did the youngsters remember the steps, they remembered to smile. Apart from one, that is, who couldn’t have looked more tragic than if her nan had just died. But that was okay; no one cares if it isn’t theirs, it merely adds to the charm.
At times pacing juddered as the audience lagged behind Brind’s sharp and densely written script, possibly because virgin dames and new panto-goers alike were grappling with the art of audience interaction. As Alan says:
“To a greater degree than any other theatrical medium, the magic of pantomime happens in the space between the audience and the stage. It is that relationship and two-way interaction that’s the key ingredient.”
In other words, as much as the team has to learn how to create the show, the audience has to learn how to interact with it. After four years together, we’re getting there.
“Performing pantomime in Berwick is wonderful because the warm reception we receive each year only increases. There has been a really great company feeling this year, which has meant a real sense of fun throughout the whole process.”
Cinderella had the most talented cast to date, great direction once more from Zoë Waterman, flashier tech, special effects (I actually ooh‘d at Cinderella’s transformation), foot-stomping songs, glamour, warmth, heart and laughs galore. So why a rating of 3.5? Simple. As the standard of production goes up so do expectations. This is the team that brought us an actual giant in Jack & The Beanstalk after all. It ain’t a team to stand still; there’s more to come, and as Alan says himself:
“Every year we come away having learnt loads from the show, but for everything that we feel we’ve done better than the previous year, there are always things we want to improve.”