The week in theatre: Cinderella; Carousel – review

Is this transformation or a series of jolly and ingenious tweaks? Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, here after many pinging postponements, opens with a number called Buns’n’Roses and includes a bare-chested Hunks’ Song as well as a gloriously unexpected wedding. The fairy godmother is a plastic surgeon; the only really likable character in the traditional panto – Buttons – is absent. Crucially, the heroine is daring, not droopy.

The script by Emerald Fennell – of Killing Eve and Promising Young Woman – is not as complete a remaking as Deborah Underwood’s children’s version, Interstellar Cinderella, in which the heroine is a rocket scientist (she drops her sonic socket wrench). Still, it whams warmheartedly into the lookist aspect of the fairytale, and gives the hero what-for because he didn’t recognise his true love: why not try looking at her face, not her feet? “Are you singing to my shoe?” Cinders asks when she finds him slavering over her glittering slipper. Gabriela Tylesova’s design of cutout spangled towers is snappily exposed as the flimsiest of fancies by Fennell’s dialogue – “Shut up you knob. It’s me” – and by David Zippel’s lyrics: “picturesque” rhymes with “grotesque”.

Carrie Hope Fletcher is a terrific goth heroine in Doc Martens, bunchy layers of straggling frock and liquorice-coloured lips. Her voice, as crystal as her slippers, flies and breaks expressively in the wittily placed ballad Far Too Late – and roars through the ultra-catchy Bad Cinderella. She is, of course, not bad. More like wicked: the only girl in Belleville who cannot walk in heels; the opposite of her sisters, who simper and snark in pink chiffon. Her character overwhelms her passive royal admirer, but Ivano Turco, who graduated only a year ago, snaps into focus with a galvanic dance routine.

The panto brio of Laurence Connor’s production sputters, particularly at the beginning, when not all the jokes are landing. Still, there are merry eruptions. In a fine, music-fuelled episode, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s serpent-like Stepmother and Rebecca Trehearn’s flouncing but forceful Queen try to outfrock each other (fishtail versus farthingale), singing to a clever, Gallic-infused melody, mock-nostalgic and, well, tart. In a spectacular moment in the ballroom, not only the stage but the front rows of the stalls begin to revolve. This does nothing to advance the action but it lifts the spirits by its sheer cheek and magnitude. The earth does not move – but it shakes a little.

This wintry summer has uncovered harsh truths in lush musicals. At Chichester, Daniel Evans triumphantly proved that South Pacific could be buoyant while having something urgent to say. Now, Timothy Sheader’s open-air production in Regent’s Park makes it plain that Carousel is no mere merry-go-round. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical flies on glorious melodies – June Is Bustin’ Out All Over, If I Loved You, as well as You’ll Never Walk Alone – but at its centre is a man who hits women.

The action has been moved nearer home, from New England to a northern fishing town. Tom Scutt’s design, a tilted semicircle of wooden planks, might have been made from the timber of boats: you can almost smell the catch. Muscularly choreographed by Drew McOnie, men roll shoulders as if in a hornpipe; women sway as if they are becoming the woof and weft of the material they make at the mills. Couples pull apart and come together, squaring up to each other as if to fight as well as to make love.

Tom Deering’s extraordinary reorchestration is fundamental to the salty effect. Nothing bosomy about this. No swelling strings, more the music of the street. Guitar, accordion, euphonium, trombone. The band is in a cove-like shelter at the back of the stage. The evening begins with lump-in-the-throat-inducing brass players strolling on to play the signature waltz.

As the young lead, Carly Bawden has a voice to match her heart: beautifully true. Joanna Riding strongly anchors the production with You’ll Never Walk Alone, first heard not as a chorus but a solo, sung alongside a grieving woman and a dead body. There is strong work too from Craig Armstrong – a terrific stand-in for an isolating Sam Mackay – as a male swaggerer and from Natasha May-Thomas, who excels in a beautiful dance of love, executed on press night in drizzle. A wonderful final circle – an alternative carousel – ends the evening with a touch of darkness but also defiant hope. The cast join hands all facing inwards, but one by one all the women turn outwards, escaping the harsh ring.

Star ratings (out of five)
Carousel ★★★★




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