Cinderella review: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is high-camp fun with a muddled message

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Emerald Fennell’s show is visually spectacular, but lacks the consistent material to support its ideas

<p>Carrie Hope Fletcher as the titular hero and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as the Stepmother </p>

Carrie Hope Fletcher as the titular hero and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as the Stepmother

At this stage, the mythology around the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Emerald Fennell’s Cinderella is impossible to ignore. From the musical theatre impresario raging against the government Covid restrictions to a “freedom day” opening night cancelled hours before it was due to take place, nobody can quite believe it’s finally happened. The words “opening tonight… at last” are emblazoned on the Gillian Lynne Theatre. Lloyd Webber jokes on stage that Wednesday’s show feels so impossible, the theatre will probably be hit by an asteroid.

So was Cinderella worth the wait? Well, yes and no. If this is your first show back in a packed-out theatre, you couldn’t ask for a more visually impressive production. Gabriela Tyleslova’s costumes are an enthralling mix of old and new, and there’s a moment of staging that made me gasp aloud. The production is driven forward by high-camp visuals, incredible comic talent and an electric ensemble cast. But look below the surface – as is Cinderella’s whole message – and you’ll find something more muddled, a show that doesn’t quite know what it’s saying or have the consistent material to support its vision.

Cinderella opens on the innuendo-laden world of Belleville, all bare chests, heaving bosoms and phallic gestures. Its beautiful, vapid citizens are ruled by the Queen (Rebecca Trehearn), a Marie Antoinette-like figure mourning the disappearance of her son Prince Charming and now stuck with his disappointing brother Sebastian (newcomer Ivano Turco). A statue has been erected in the town of the missing prince but it’s been vandalised with – gasp – graffiti and a bra. It’s the work of our titular hero (Carrie Hope Fletcher), or “Bad Cinderella” as she introduces herself in her opening number. In a uniform of a black tutu, Doc Martens and fingerless gloves ripped straight from the (web)pages of Tumblr circa 2011, she’s a hated outsider, a “f*** you I don’t care what you think about me” presence against the tits and teeth of Belleville.

The problem, unfortunately, is that Cinderella herself is far less interesting than the world she looks at in disgust. Her scenes are an interesting contrast, often taking place in the shadowy woods she’s been banished to, but the songs she’s given are the weakest in the show, with rhymes you can hear coming a mile off. While Fletcher’s voice has never sounded stronger, the material makes it hard to want to stay in her world. When she’s with Sebastian, the pair have spells of great chemistry, but actual funny dialogue is undercut by random lines that sound like an AI writing how it thinks young people talk. Turco’s beautiful voice similarly feels wasted on ballad after ballad, with brief glimpses of something reminiscent of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar leaving you wanting more.

The message presented by Cinderella herself is that Belleville = bad, Cinderella = good. But the most enigmatic characters all exist on the bad side, led by the Stepmother (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), a character mixing Maleficent with Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (if she smoked 40 cigarettes a day). Hamilton-Barritt’s comic timing is impeccable, elevating a relatively simple script with every miniscule facial expression working its way through the character’s botox. She is excellently supported by daughters Adele (Laura Baldwin) and Marie (Georgina Castle), a pair of Love Island-inspired airheads. But it’s the morally bankrupt matriarchs who get the best material – The Stepmother and Queen’s duet “I Know You” and the latter’s impossibly catchy, testosterone-fueled “Man’s Man” are by far the show’s strongest numbers.

Ivano Turco as Prince Sebastian

When our hero submits to the whims of Belleville at the hands of the Godmother (Gloria Initiri), who it turns out is a plastic surgeon, her downfall begins. She turns up at the ball and is branded a bimbo by the other women, “delusional” and “desperate” by Sebastian. If we’re following the message the show has taught us so far, this could be a point about how women get judged no matter what they look like. Yet it’s not the prince’s judgement Cinderella is upset about, but that he thought she’d be like the other girls in the first place – even in those moments, she judges them back. Stepsister Marie’s comment that Cinderella might have noticed her if she paid attention to “anyone other than yourself” is played for laughs, but she has a point, because Cinderella is a snob, too. The idea that people who care about their looks or get plastic surgery must be stupid and selfish feels as out of date as that black tutu.

Why am I holding a Lloyd Webber musical based on a fairytale to modern feminist standards? Because if you give a show a contemporary(ish) setting with a book written by Promising Young Woman creator Emerald Fennell, you’re deliberately placing yourself within this framework. We’re being told this is a feminist retelling of Cinderella, but the musical’s message feels unclear. Sometimes it’s fun to go to the theatre and watch a high-camp, brightly coloured musical, but in this case the confused political slant muddles things. It’s a shame because, for sheer spectacle, you won’t get a more impressive show.

‘Cinderella’ runs at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

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