Legendary panto-maker Peter Duncan returns to the Playhouse for the fifth year running
Oxford Playhouse. Fri 3rd Dec - Sun 16th Jan

December 13, 2010
Your average Brit will know what to expect when attending a pantomime, but for the uninitiated, the traditional British Panto is a simple yet chaotic stage production consisting of magic, music, melodrama and massive amounts of innuendo with roots in both Commedia dell’ Arte and traditional Music Hall.

As with most Pantomimes, the plot of Cinderella is based on a simple, well known fairytale surrounding several principal characters – the young maiden of the title, a fairy godmother, two ugly sisters, a dashing prince, and Buttons the accident prone servant – and in order for it to fit the bill it must follow a variety of well known conventions. These conventions can either be enhanced or undermined by the writer’s sense of fun, the director’s vision and the cast’s ability.

Fortunately for audiences of Oxford Playhouse’s latest Christmas panto, the talent on display in front of and behind the scenes was considerable, and the product of their ability was clear for all to see.

Writer and Director, Peter Duncan’s script, though largely consisting of the prerequisite tongue in cheek, child-friendly cheese one would normally expect, occasionally sparkled with sharper-than-average adult references, and was performed with verve and gusto. Of the bright and lively cast, it was Miles Western and Amy Griffiths who shone the brightest – the former keeping the deceptively bawdy laughs coming thick and fast as ugly sister, Lady G (or Gaga to her friends), and the latter holding the ramshackle narrative together with her assured yet playful portrayal of the Fairy Godmother.

The exquisite set not only served as a perfect backdrop for the modern choreography, playful costume, slick lighting and exuberant music, but also successfully highlighted the ambitious scale of this unashamedly mischievous production.

December 4, 2010
Our new friend Fairy Godmother sings ‘Do you believe in magic?’, instructs us to put everyday objects around a pumpkin and declares ‘Let’s go!’ For, heralded by the wave of her wand, opening night is here. It’s great to see the Playhouse pantomime tradition grow and grow like a massive magic pumpkin that may explode and turn into a glittering carriage. Joseph Elliott as Buttons adds the comic style of Lee Evans to his engaging comedy role. He is hopelessly in love with the dusty-looking Cinderella (Natalie Tulloch) and makes her a chariot out of two kitchen chairs to make believe she can go to the Ball. When the real thing appears before the interval it is a spectacular steed fit for a winter wonderland pulled by Baby and Rosie, two adorable white ponies. The local Children’s Chorus visibly enjoy taking part in the adventure and their joy in performing on stage is infectious.

If this all sounds a little too sweet, then two Ugly Sisters are lurking in the wings ready to pop Cinders’ bubble with their big, size ten heels. Lady P and Lady G deliver some of the razor sharp satire of the script, swiping at the Coalition Government and the ill-fated World Cup bid. Justin Brett and Miles Western play Ladies P and G respectively as an uncanny cross between Russell Brand and Paris Hilton to keep the audience agog with awe as to what they are wearing next. In one case, the outfit is a tiger (not real). Delightfully traditional routines are included such as the slapstick of wallpapering the palace for the Royal Wedding. There is some deceptively difficult business involving a plank of wood that nearly knocks off Baron Hardup’s (Roy Weskin) head.

Uncle Peter (aka Mr Duncan, the show's talented Writer and Director) picks out a favourite selection of tunes from topical musicals like ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Me and My Girl’ for the story line. The action has a good pace and, just as the ticking clock reminds Cinders to rush on home, the audience knows if we don’t dance ourselves dizzy when the music’s playing then the magic will be gone. A body popping montage of chart songs from Uncle Darren’s (aka Mr Reeves) musical direction has the packed audience clapping along to a thumping version of ‘Bad Romance’. The on stage ensemble singing, particularly the a capella tribal song, has impressively note-perfect harmonies.

With the upwardly-mobile Prince (Jody Crosier) dishing out tickets for the Ball to everyone, the scene should be set for him to find his perfect Princess in Amanda Hambleton’s sumptuous set design. Except Cinders’ wealthy older stepsisters are playing havoc with her party plans and rip up the younger sister’s ticket more than once. The way a bully works becomes agonisingly clear. It can involve stronger muscle, taller height and older years. Ladies P and G show that in maturity this game plan creates both social prowess and private unhappiness as seen by the pair fighting like dogs over the crystal slipper. Buttons offers Cinders a handy hint on a battle that is notoriously hard to fight: when bullying gets on your nerves make a silly face and laugh back.

So, as Amy Griffiths, who plays a wonderfully lyrical Welsh Fairy instructs, I put the objects around the pumpkin and say ‘Let’s go!’ The Fairy asks again, ‘Do you believe in magic?’ I’m not afraid to tell the truth: Yes, I do! Pumpkins are go.
Very good.

Booing, I noticed, did not stop the step-sisters from banishing poor Cinderella into the attic.

Had the beautiful ponies applied to be on stage?

I was most relieved when the scout master did not 'eat' the child in the second row - which he said he might.
I was lucky enough to get a ticket to the fully booked preview performance of Cinderella at the Oxford Playhouse last Friday night, and it was an absolute delight. As usual, they have decided not to go for a big name “celebrity”, but this is certainly no bad thing – the whole cast was excellent, with particularly outstanding performances from the adorable Buttons and the side-splitting Ugly Sisters.

Peter Duncan has outdone himself this time round with the writing and direction. The show was well-rounded, with something for the whole family, from modern pop songs and dance numbers, to a bit of Laurel and Hardy style slapstick, and real life (!!) ponies to pull Cinderella’s carriage to the ball!

I am somebody who is usually a little grumpy about Christmas preparations and advertising creeping ever earlier, but this feel-good pantomime made me feel like a child again, and has put me in the perfect Christmas mood - I am now ready to get out my Christmas music, and start gorging myself on mince pies. I will certainly be telling all my friends, and will even try to get to see it again myself before it finishes on the 16th January.
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