Cinderella review – not so much a ball as a blast

Gillian Lynne theatre, London

Bewitching melodies abound as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s terrifically OTT but warm and inclusive musical finally arrives

Delayed by a year because of the pandemic, and with last month’s opening night postponed at the 11th hour, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical is finally up and running. It arrives late but in high fashion with outre gowns, bare-chested swordplay, brutal high heels and whip-smart humour. It’s worth the wait.

The original story and book by Emerald Fennell have heart and a torrent of barbed wit, exposing the faulty morals in traditional fairytales without scrimping on glittering trimmings. David Zippel’s crystalline lyrics are attuned to Fennell’s dialogue, cheekily satirical yet wistful and uplifting too. Lord Lloyd-Webber’s richly enjoyable orchestrations range from grand waltzes, courtly processionals and marches to deftly pastiched and deeply felt romanticism, power-balladry, a splash of chanson and rollicking guitar riffs. Bewitching melodies abound: some refrains are practically iridescent, revealing new tones from scene to scene.

Carrie Hope Fletcher as Cinderella and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as her stepmother.
Carrie Hope Fletcher as Cinderella and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as her stepmother. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Laurence Connor’s production starts with a salvo against fairytale bunkum: the shock news is that Prince Charming is dead. Moreover, someone has graffitied his memorial statue. Fennell is up to something similar as she defaces and rewrites myths about femininity, masculinity and heroism, with the keen eye for gender politics she showed in Promising Young Woman.

Our setting is the immaculately preened Belleville. “There’s no town that can compete – frankly if they could we’d cheat,” boast the well-honed citizens in an exuberant opener marked by fanfares and comically fussy staccato. Belleville is famed for sweet roses and creamy milk: a town buffed to perfection where hot buns are not solely the preserve of the bakery.

With her grasping and vain stepsisters (Georgina Castle and Laura Baldwin) simply reflecting the town spirit, Cinders sticks out. But Fennell defines her through defiance rather than duty and she never looks likely to chatter with magical birds. In the first of several superb solos, Bad Cinderella, Carrie Hope Fletcher owns the rebellious reputation Cinders has been given. Sneering and raging, she is another of Lloyd Webber’s outsiders and akin to Dewey Finn in School of Rock. Belleville’s prim musical motifs recall those for the elite institution where Finn caused chaos. Fletcher slips brilliantly into her character with winning appeal, her despair revealed in Unbreakable, which evokes Close Every Door from Joseph.

Newcomer Ivano Turco, who graduated last summer, is equally excellent as Prince Charming’s downbeat brother, Sebastian, forced to marry and take the throne, jeopardising his friendship with Cinderella. Turco delicately delivers the tender ebb and flow of his ballad Only You, Lonely You. The finale shows him to be a mean mover but he has a keen physicality throughout: awkward in public, at ease with Cinderella. The couple’s teasing relationship is captured in an affecting, informal song together, So Long, rather than sealed in a passionate duet: this is a celebration of being mates rather than a quest to find a mate, as Sebastian is instructed.

Ivano Turco as Sebastian.
Ivano Turco as Sebastian. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

We get, in effect, two transformations as Sebastian and Cinderella both try out new guises at the ball, where he must choose a bride. Cinders sets out to look as hot as “volcanic ash” in the cautionary Beauty Has a Price, a duet with Gloria Onitiri (fantastic as the godmother). Capturing the allure of conforming to beauty ideals that would allow Cinderella to “disappear me”, it’s the darkest comedy of extreme corsetry since Haus of Holbein in the West End hit Six. One of the show’s triumphs is how those malevolent strings and that macabre keyboard can seamlessly turn sweet. But I missed the gear change provided by the rambunctious odyssey The Vanquishing of the Three-Headed Sea Witch, a highlight in the original cast recording album yet cut from the show.

As she proved singing Zippel’s lyrics in City of Angels at the Donmar, you can always count on Rebecca Trehearn and she plays the Queen with lascivious glee; her knowing duet with Cinderella’s stepmother (a rasping Victoria Hamilton-Barritt) is delivered as if straight from a Pigalle cafe.

Designer Gabriela Tylesova literally upends the fairytale town in a rococo frame around the stage and a neat revolve takes us into the heart of a waltz, elegantly lit by Bruno Poet and choreographed by Joann M Hunter. Tylesova and Hunter outdo themselves with the irresistible number Man’s Man, whose thrusting, leather-clad chorus seems to have escaped from Magic Mike Live’s West End residency.

It adds up to not so much a ball as a blast: terrifically OTT and silly but warm and inclusive, with relatable, down-to-earth heroes and pertinent points about our quest for perfection and our expectations of each other and ourselves.

  • Booking at the Gillian Lynne theatre, London, until 13 February


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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