Christmas is a-coming and the geese are being intensively pumped full of chemicals which means only one thing in theatreland: an unstoppable outbreak of pantomime. The Vaults are no exception, hosting Luke Barnes’ adaptation of Cinderella, set in a modern-day pub in which we, the audience, act as the patrons sitting at tables or in rows around the walls as the action takes place amongst us. From the moment we enter Jen McGinley’s welcoming set, which includes a functioning bar from which we are encouraged to buy drinks, the performers, who also act as hosts, work hard to create a jovial and casual atmosphere, encouraging us to join in with the action at every opportunity but sadly this is backed up by comparatively little substance.
The basic premise takes the traditional Cinderella story and places it in the modern day, with Cinderella (Rosa Coduri) working in her late dad’s pub which is owned by her obnoxious step-mum (Lizzie Hopley) and step-sisters, Simone (Louise Haggerty) and Garfunkel (Megan Pemberton), who are launching an events company with a karaoke party in the pub. Much of the action revolves around the abuses Cinderella endures at their hands under the threat of having her invitation to the party withheld. There is then a wrangling for the attention of Prince Charming (Jack Condon), a detestable, self-professed fuck-boy, and the house his nan left to him on condition he marries the woman with whom she left her orthopaedic slippers before she died. Another rather underwhelming strand sees Buttons (Patrick Knowles), a miserable dog, trying to commit suicide in a variety of ways. If that’s not Christmas cheer I don’t know what is.
However, the attempt to imbue the story with contemporary relevance proves to be largely superficial with most of the humour depending on the unhelpful, outmoded gender tropes that it occasionally purports to challenge. Particularly troubling are transphobic slurs (such as a derogatory suggestion that “Cinderella used to be a Cinder-fella”) and the frequent fat-shaming references. Likewise the inclusion of Mike (Jimmy Fairhurst) as a gay fairy godmother does little to alleviate the general tone of almost aggressive heteronormativity.
Distasteful attempts at humour aside, one of the production’s high points is its emphasis on including the audience in the action, encouraging us to join in with the many classic songs around which the play is structured and even following up the actual performance with a karaoke session. On top of this, some of the better jokes come at the expense of audience members although at times this puts an uncomfortable amount of pressure onto certain individuals, such as the person put on the spot and asked to dance in front of everyone (to be fair, on the night I attended, he absolutely nailed it).
Haggerty as Simone and especially Pemberton as Garfunkel stand out as the best performers in a cast that seems to have been selected primarily for its enthusiasm. There is more than a touch of the amateur to the show which, in all honesty, often feels more like a freshers’ week pantomime than a professional production: it is light-hearted and energetic but does little to convince us we are getting a golden carriage of an evening rather than a pumpkin with a smattering of glitter.
Cinderella is playing The Vaults until 12 January 2020. For more information and tickets, see The Vaults website.