Review: Cinderella

The early moments of the Grand Opera House's annual Christmas pantomime, Cinderella, fill everyone with joy. With our eyes cast upon a stage pretty in pink (although the princess bride will be settling for white), John Linehan, aka May McFettridge, enters on a floating crescent moon in full Fairy Godmother garb, one of several marvellous effects cooked up by The Twins FX company.

His, or her, immediate integration with the audience through anachronistic comic asides and expected lapses into tastelessness is the refreshing starter before the mains, which begin with the return of Jayne Wisener to the Belfast stage as Cinderella herself.

As Wisener bursts into song about the magical and mysterious virtues of Northern Ireland's capital city, a tune which wouldn’t feel out of place in Enchanted, one is instantly carried away by the Sweeney Todd star's class and rhythm. Her grace and ease are an inspiration to the well-choreographed dancers around her.

Then the Ugly Sisters show up. Amanda and Alesha, well played by Gerard McCabe and Tommy Wallace respectively, enter to loud applause and the whole tone turns rather farcical. The fleet-footed becomes flatulent, the carnival comic, and a different kind of fun begins, carried on by Michael Joseph's childish, love struck Buttons, the royal taxmen (Damian Patton and Tom Rolfe's "Double Trouble" comedy act) and of course McFettridge, along with his regular sparring partner Paddy Jenkins.

As far as panto stories go, Cinderella (the show, not the character) isn't all that substantial, but it is, for want of a better word, charming. Mainly because it is the rags-to-riches triumph given a good heart and noble morality. A naïvete, even, which is fine for children, but puts Jonathan Kiley's soundly staged production in a bit of a quandary.

Why this is so can be put down to the varying quality of the performances and skits accompanying the story. The series of sketches are smartly penned, but some of them shine more than others - and alarmingly, starkly so. The Double Trouble duo's clowning and conjuring, for example, don't carry the same weight when they're not having fun alongside McFettridge and Jenkins.

Having said that, the musical numbers, a mixture of the classic and contemporary with alternative lyrics thrown in, generally work well. One enjoys, say, Buttons and Cinderella dancing to "You To Me Are Everything". One laughs at Amanda and Alesha's colourful costumes (they have many!) and prancing during their own "I Will Survive".  And there is an ingenious moment where a romantic duet transforms into a slapstick battle for the spotlight. This is where Wisener and Gareth Gates' tanned Prince Charming excel, with both - especially the former Pop Idol - keen to show their singing chops and aptitude for understated comedy.

They also have a sly self-awareness, which both adds to and detracts from the fun. Even - especially - in panto, a strong bond with the mainly familial audience is a major plus, and for all the smiles and laughter, they don't quite manage to connect with everyone like McCabe, Wallace, Jenkins and McFettridge do. It's good that the Ugly Sisters get plenty of time, but one can't help but want more of Jenkins and McFettridge, and a little more from Wisener and Gates.

Yet one would have to be a real grump not to like this Cinderella at least a little. The cast and crew know their targets and hit the spot with effective enough precision, and even if the implementation can be frustrating, it certainly amounts to a satisfying evening's entertainment on the whole. I'm already looking forward to next year's Opera House panto.

Simon Fallaha

Cinderella runs at the Grand Opera House until January 15 2017.

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