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Photo: Stephen A'Court
Photo: Stephen A'Court
Roger Hallís CINDERELLA The Pantomime
Songs by Paul Jenden and Michael Nicholas Williams
Directed by Susan Wilson
Musical Director: Michael Nicholas Williams

at Circa One, Wellington
From 17 Nov 2012 to 23 Dec 2012
[2hrs, incl. interval]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 18 Nov 2012

There is a fresh feel about this Cinderella:  lively script, topical gags, gorgeous music, clever and bright costume-set-lighting designs, and strong characterisations from an exemplary cast who connect well with each other and their audience.

Since 2005, when Roger Hall and Circa first revived the end-of-year panto tradition, with Cinderella, the common denominators have been Hall, Susan Wilson (director), Michael Nicholas Williams (composer, musical director, live musician), Paul Jenden (lyricist, costume designer, choreographer, performing factotum) and Jennifer Lal (lighting designer). Jenden also designed the sets until John Hodgkins stepped in from last year, when the recycling and revamping began with Aladdin.

We can dub them ‘the dream team' now. This year the pitch and tone feels ideal; ‘intimate spectacle', we may call it. By my count, five of the nine-strong cast have done Hall-Circa pantos before and the newcomers come on board at just the right level for this venue.

As always the action is set locally, in Wellington, so ‘royalty' is contrived with a corgi-cuddling Queen in residence at Government House alongside King John Key: a whimsical conceit that is readily accepted by the audience. The Hardup family – father Basil, his daughter Cinderella and her hideous step-sisters Bertha and Grace – live in a Miramar state house (which has risen astronomically in value, making them asset-rich but income-poor).

There's a ‘post-modern' touch to the script too, with a conscious knowingness about how the story is supposed to go and a determination on some people's parts to change it, coupled with alarm from others at the derailing of established traditions. Crucially, the audience gets to share fully in this part of the game.

Setting the tone of genuine connection is Lyndee-Jane Rutherford's Fairy Godmother, whose i-wand does not necessarily give her total power. Her control over the flow of the show, however, is perfectly pitched and paced, and her singing is fabulous.

Playing his third consecutive ‘dame' with Circa (although he did first play a step-sister in a KidzStuff Cinderella in 2009), Gavin Rutherford's Bertha is joined by Jon Pheloung as the other sister, Grace. They make an amiably flirty and bitchy pair, allowing us to love to hate them and vice versa. And this time, that's just as it should be.

My concern seven years ago that they were not nearly nasty enough, which left us with no-one to boo (an essential ingredient in any panto), is assuaged this year by an excellent twist on past versions, as seen in Wellington anyway (Hall's pantos play in other towns too). Dan Dini is no longer the Prince's man-servant but a dodgy con man who hooks up with the itinerant back-packing Prince as he reluctantly flies home to his destiny (cue a splendid evocation of a turbulent landing in Wellington). His offer to swap roles is happily accepted up by the Prince, who takes a ‘real job' as a waiter in a Cuba Mall café then at his own ball.

Rather than play it up large, Sean Allen (who played the Father and King in '05), brings a well-centred malevolence to Dan Dini, which earns him many a boo and hiss. Bravo.

Richard Dey's Prince James is as sincere and unpretentious as the day is long in summertime. It is in his waiter mode that the wilful Cinderella first sees him: cue delicious ‘love at first sight' lighting and musical effects (yes, the romance is retained).

Chelsea Bognuda embodies, with flair, Cinderella's determination not to be a victim, expressed in a wonderfully strong singing voice. Intent on seeing the world and having adventures rather than marrying some rich guy to elevate the family's fiscal fortunes, [spoiler alert?] she ends up having it all, of course.

Her father, Basil, who proudly wears his Gold Card on his lapel and who has an ongoing relationship with fish in his quest to alleviate his creaky joints, is splendidly played by John Wraight, who is even more delightful as King John Key. His lapses into ‘Jonkeydledegoop' are spot on.

A nod and a wink is all we need to accept Lyndee-Jane Rutherford's slipping into the Queen role, with imperious poise, and back again, although in the multiple wedding scene finale her transformation is complete.

This time round, the Fairy Godmother's assistants are a couple of Scandinavian back-packers from Dannevirke. Emma Kinnane's Dagmar is robustly voluble while Paul Jenden's inarticulate Schwen is the picture of poetic melancholy, made especially poignant by his inability to propose to her.  

Rat puppets and a couple of surprises from the buffet table add to the fun, thanks in part to the unseen hand of stage manager Eric Gardiner. Working wonderfully as an ensemble, the entire company ensures a rattling good family show.  
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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);