With the Fairy Godmother excised in favour of a plucky flock of birds, and the Christmas season’s standard influx of Slade and Crosby replaced by a bluesy folk band, Sally Cookson and Travelling Light’s retelling of the Grimm’s classic tale undoubtedly retreads the stylistic ground that Kneehigh has tended for the last decade. Yet whilst several parallels border on repetition, there is still something brave – particularly at a time of year when trite, syrupy storytelling is rife – in such a stripped-back, committed approach to putting the stuff of magic on stage.
In the space of the first act, song, choreography, birdcall and – in the case of Craig Edward’s genuinely disturbing metamorphosis from loving father to callous stepmother – cross-dressing, are shown to be no cause for sweat for the consistently fabulous cast of five. And when we return after the interval, Thomas Eccleshare’s lovesick Prince gets the chance for even more fun, venturing into pantomime territory with some good old-fashioned audience interaction that has kids from nine to 90 beaming. The key charm of Cookson’s work here is that there’s enough of this kind of self-referential winking to warrant the booing, hissing and “he’s behind you”-ing associated with festive shows across the land, but never too much to destabilise what is, ultimately, a tender coming-of-age story where mothers – be they of the Queen Elizabeth lookalike variety, or the terrifying transvestite kind – are the pushy agents of a patriarchal society.
Latent feminist messages aside (though Lisa Kerr’s sparky, tomboyish and glitter-booted Ella is surely designed to show that gender conventions aren’t what define a true princess) this production zips along at an enchanting pace. If you couldn’t quite say that Cinderella: A Fairytale breaks new ground, it’s at least true that it achieves what it sets out to: entertaining attenders of all ages with oodles of humour, a healthy touch of fear and an all-important dose of seasonal pathos thrown in for good measure.
Cinderella: A Fairytale is playing at the Tobacco Factory Theatre until 15 January. For more information and tickets, see the Tobacco Factory website.