Arts & Books: Theatre: Shockheaded Cinders

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The Independent Culture
NOT JUST Cinderella, but Angela Carter Cinderella. Whatever next? Marina Warner Mother Goose? If you think, though, that tacking the name of a sharp feminist commentator and noted magical realist on to the title of a traditional panto makes it all sound a bit worryingly right-on and analytic for a Christmas treat, then think again. This show is pure - and sometimes impure - delight. It keeps faith with Carter's imagination in two ways. First, it revels in the cheerful vulgarity and toy-theatre two-dimensionality of this very British art form, eloquently celebrated in her essay, "In Pantoland". And secondly, there are sequences where it hauntingly captures the dark gruesomeness and psychological penetration of Carter's reworkings of the Cinderella story; here, the ghost of the heroine's mother returns in one kindly yet impatient animal form after another, giving her charred and dispossessed child milk, clothes and the independence to be able to make her escape.

Played on a set of receding Pollock's Toy Theatre prosceniums that replicate the Lyric's own red-curtained arch, the production is a feast of inspired silliness and visual magic. It has the distinction of putting more rodents on stage than any other show since Sarah Kane's Cleansed, which featured all those rats gnawing at amputated limbs. But the lovely finger-puppet mice here are better adjusted types, regaling Cinders (a nicely unimpressed and EastEnders-ish Angela Clerkin) with a delightfully potty and improbably literary song that goes: "Cheese in the moonlight/Oh what fun!/The poignancy of Parmesan is wasted in the sun..."

The show pools the imaginations of Neil Bartlett, the Lyric Hammersmith's Auteur Extraordinaire, and the Improbable Theatre gang - Lee Simpson, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. The last two were responsible for one of this year's most brilliant successes, Shockheaded Peter, adapted from the malevolent 19th-century poems of Heinrich Hoffmann, which created a world in which the hair of a buried child could sprout through floorboards.

Here, the same taste for visual bizarreries is wonderfully evident. In one sequence, all the cast appear as multiple moustachioed versions of Cinders' neglectful father, barricaded behind copies of The Daily Telegraph and shedding sheets from it which are then moulded into the shapes of the ghostly mother's various animal reincarnations. Never can that newspaper have been put to more constructive use. And thanks to the rare skills of the illusionist Paul Kieve, white streamers spilling from the mouth of the fairy godmother can perform a breathtaking feat of aerial origami and conjure up the skeleton of Cinderella's fairy-tale coach, the disembodied limbs and manes of the horses dancing into a final, stunningly beautiful assemblage. All that, plus lashings of drag and double entendre - when one of the ugly sisters is trying on the glass slipper, the giant mouse-tail which the same actor has worn in an earlier scene rears up from between his legs in a saucy act of sabotage, suggesting yet another marital disqualification. Well, what are you waiting for?

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper