The pain and the panto of sisterhood

<i>Cinderella</i> | Theatre Royal, Brighton <i>Cinderella - The Ash Girl</i> | Birmingham Rep
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The Independent Culture

The internal conflicts of step-families, coping with the loss of a parent, low self-esteem among teenage girls: no wonder Cinderella is the nation's favourite Christmas entertainment. It is as bang up-to-date as only a centuries-old folk-tale can be. The straight panto brushes most of these elements of the story into the fireplace, of course, and concentrates on the accompanying wish-fulfilment.

The internal conflicts of step-families, coping with the loss of a parent, low self-esteem among teenage girls: no wonder Cinderella is the nation's favourite Christmas entertainment. It is as bang up-to-date as only a centuries-old folk-tale can be. The straight panto brushes most of these elements of the story into the fireplace, of course, and concentrates on the accompanying wish-fulfilment.

Cinderella at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, is just such a show, proud of its low ambition and high production values. The set is a splendid picture-book concoction, the costumes flamboyant where necessary, and the coach a beautifully delicate thing, drawn - aah! - by two Shetland ponies. The whole thing tends toward, but is not destroyed by, the celebrity overkill that turns some pantos into de facto variety shows, with individual star turns punctuated by lively musical numbers. The plot, naturally, is relegated to last place, although here the role of Dandini, the Prince's envoy who swaps places with him for a day, is resurrected, for Julian Clary.

It would be easy to assume that Clary would be a natural panto performer, but his characteristic, refined bemusement sits oddly with the mindless vigour of the rest of the cast. At any event, parents should not worry about risqué material: Clary limits himself to the usual collection of double entendres, and the odd "cream horn" never harmed anybody. He seems happiest in his songs. "That's Amore" harks back to the glory days of the Joan Collins Fan Club (revelling in the same low-NRG insouciance as "Leader of the Pack"), while M People's "Search for the Hero" gets the showstopper treatment, complete with gospel choir and cavorting woodland animals.

The other name draw is Dave Benson Phillips - known, if not by you, then by your kids as a hugely popular children's TV presenter - who plays Buttons. He is adept at cranking up the excitement levels in the auditorium to manic levels, whether by throwing out chocolates, leading the traditional call-and-response sessions, or - most engagingly - serenading some hapless six-year-old with a Marilyn Monroe-style rendition of "Happy Birthday".

The Ugly Sisters (David Hill and Tony Jackson) are acceptable, if unremarkable, while Cinderella and the Prince are as cheery and wholesome as Sunny Delight. Their most thankless task is to provide the endless, desperately banal pop songs that have them reaching for, variously, the sky, the stars, the moon, and each other's hearts. Maybe it was one song, endlessly reprised, I don't know. At any event, it's what the kids (and, these days, that really means the kids) are listening to, and it's horrible.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's Cinderella - The Ash Girl at the Birmingham Rep is as lyrical and thought-provoking as you would expect from the award-winning playwright. It is also as gloomy as the sub-title suggests. Ignoring all the mawkish trappings of the traditional panto, Wertenbaker goes right back to the source material, taking from the Brothers Grimm the step-sisters' gruesome toe-and-heel-amputation, as they try to force on the glass slipper, but leaving their magic bird in a tree in favour of Perrault's fairy godmother. The strongest part of Wertenbaker's version is the family relationship. Ash Girl's father is absent, her step-mother short-tempered rather than evil, and the ugly sisters restored to their original incarnation, as a pair of ordinarily bossy, rude and self-centred girls. Jane Cameron and Rachel Smith's thoughtless abuse of Stephanie Pochin's Ash Girl is as realistic as it is recognisable, while still giving the play some of its brighter moments.

The main addition to the story, however, is a less happy affair. Wertenbaker has brought in the seven deadly sins to motivate the humans' misdeeds, and transmogrified them into nightmarish creatures, such as the Slothworm, Angerbird and Gluttontoad. Some of their costumes are fantastic, but they act as a dead-weight to the story, as Wertenbaker has to invent more evil deeds than are in the original, simply to justify their presence. She has even shoe-horned in an eighth sin - Sadness - a black-shawled girl out of Edvard Munch, who tempts Ash Girl to give in to despair and, by implication, suicide.

Admittedly, this never quite reaches the angstful depths that it might have, but the director-designer team of Lucy Bailey and Angela Davies have still failed to replace the missing panto fun with any real sense of enchantment or wonder. The opening tableau, of the step-sisters picking their way across a stage-spanning banquet table laden with food, is never bettered. The forest is murky, rather than haunted, and not only the magic coach and horses, but also the prince's ball, are disappointing shadow-puppets. There are some great moments, such as a hundred spiders dropping from the ceiling on strings, and Pochin and Justin Avoth (as the prince) are moving in their love scenes. But there is not enough mindless wish-fulfilment to counteract the darker motifs Wertenbaker has dug up.

'Cinderella': Theatre Royal, Brighton (01273 328488), to 21 January; 'Cinderella - The Ash Girl': Birmingham Rep (0121 236 4455), to 27 January

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