Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 1st December, 2017
Writer, director and jovial genius Iain Lauchlan is back at the Belgrade for another triumphant year with a winning pantomime that blends traditional with new elements.
Oddly, it gets off to something of an underwhelming start, with Fairy Godmother (Maggie Robson) springing on and giving us some sub-Disney waffle about dreams. What, no rhyming couplets? She introduces us to our heroine straight away – a winsome Alice Rose Fletcher, looking every inch the part and with a sweet singing voice. This is a Cinderella we can take to right away, but her song is somewhat wistful and reflective, and not really an opening number. Energy levels crank up when the chorus of villagers pour on – and we’re off at last!
The ugly sisters, Dyspepsia (Lauchlan in his element, it appears) and Listeria ( an equally excellent Greg Powrie) are a superb double act. Ostensibly the villains, they are too enjoyable to be bad. The crux of villainy in this version is found in Cinderella’s stepmother (Maggie Robson, doubling, and having more to get her teeth into), a delightful snarling diva.
Adding to the fun – shovelling it on – is Craig Hollingsworth as Buttons. A natural crowd-pleaser, Hollingsworth is a cheeky chappie, a quick wit with impeccable timing. His scenes with the sisters are the comic highlights of the show. An extended slosh scene involving waxing strips and fake tanning equipment is relentlessly funny in an old-school way. Slapstick still works.
An iconic scene we don’t get is Buttons trying to cheer up Cinderella when she can’t go to the ball. Cut because of running times, I suspect, but Hollingsworth gives us hints of the pathos that is an essential part of the Buttons character.
In this performance, a charming Vicky Field plays Prince Charming – Lauchlan gives us two principal boys to balance the two dames – and Letitia Hector gives us an elegant and full-throated Dandini. In panto, no one bats an eyelid about cross-dressing and gender and blind casting. Everyone is accepted. Any joshing is good-natured.
From the chorus there is strong support from Lashane Williams and Vicki Stevenson in several featured moments, but undoubtedly this is the Ugly Sisters & Buttons show, and we don’t mind that at all.
There are moments of wonder – the transformation scene is straightforward in its execution but still works its magic on the children – plenty of audience participation, with some individuals being ‘volunteered’ to prove themselves good sports – and the time-honoured story still comes through. There is something about Cinderella that strikes a chord with everyone: the worthy underdog whisked away from servitude; but it’s more than a lottery win. Cinderella’s generosity of spirit is what sees her through.
One final point: I look around the stalls and from what I can see, the people of Coventry have turned out from all corners. It’s quite simply the most diverse audience I’ve seen at a pantomime. And everyone’s enjoying this peculiarly British tradition and having a great night at the theatre, and I think this is the kind of Britain I want to live in. Inclusive, good-natured and friendly. Well done, the Belgrade!