Soho Cinders (Charing Cross Theatre)

Soho Cinders (Charing Cross Theatre, until December 21st)

⭐⭐⭐⭐

A charming revamp of a classic fairy tale is casting a spell at Charing Cross Theatre in the run-up to Christmas with villains to hiss at, heroes to cheer and even many moments which provide the cue to yell, “He’s behind you!” – though the latter does have the potential to be taken the wrong way in this rather more adult show with a gay twist.

The annual panto season will offer plenty of near-the-knuckle and colourful versions of Cinderella to theatres up and down the country but the delightful Soho Cinders brings a brighty and breezy alternative, plus a wealth of young and gifted talent to the always enterprising London venue.

If it seems as though it’s been around for a while, then it might be because the show has a welcome sniff of Lionel Bart’s chirpy Sixties musicals about it and there is absolutely no problem with that. However, this collaboration between the mighty George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (lyrics and book) and Elliot Davis (book) is as recent as 2008, when it was first showcased, followed by a concert version in 2011 and a premiere at the Soho Theatre the following year.

It was revived at the Union Theatre in 2016 and some of the cast reprise their roles in this cheerful production, a promising first producing venture for director Will Keith (who also directed at the Union), with his Theatre Syndicate London company.

This contemporary take on Cinderella, a pre-festive frolic infused with plenty of political jibes and set in the heart of London’s naughtiest entertainment district, is as fluffy as a delicately whipped meringue, yet it’s hard not to fall in love with the memorable songs and excellent performances here. The Stiles and Drewe numbers are as strong as always – and this production makes the most of every single one – with instantly likeable and hummable tunes that range from the comic to the exhilarating.

It’s a tale as old as time – well, midnight, anyway – but this version of the story blends the familiar with some quirky, idiosyncratic and enjoyable surprises.

In this update, Cinders becomes Robbie, a young student working at his late mum’s launderette, who falls in love with a mayoral candidate seeking to take the capital by storm. There’s plenty of mobile phones in evidence – and a crucial plot point depends on one – so maybe they met via electronic dating on Cindr.

Naturally, the course of true love never did run smooth and the affair is put at risk by a pair of raunchy and ugly sisters, a noble benefactor and the mayoral hopeful’s fiancé.

It is the storming performances that give this pleasing show its fourth star, with stand-out leads and an exceptionally accomplished ensemble.

Luke Bayer, has been needlessly submitting an application for most promising lead performer in a number of musicals and workshops this year; as Robbie he proves yet again that he already possesses enviable star quality and his peformance is a winning one, brimming with sincerity and warmth. He discovers both the heart and the humour among the froth and his second act ballad They Don’t Make Glass Slippers is a sensitive showstopper.

Lewis Asquith (one of the performers returning to a role they took at the Union) is a strong James Prince, described by a tongue-in-cheek heard but not seen narrator as an oxymoron for being “clean-shaven but with a beard,” capturing the moral uncertainty of a politician whose ambition and emotions are conflicted.

The lovable Buttons is transformed into Velcro, who works alongside Robbie in the launderette, with Millie O’Connell turning in another powerful performance as the lovelorn friend since childhood. She achieves considerable chemistry with Bayer and her Let Him Go duet with the wrong-footed but surprisingly accepting Marilyn (a robust and impressive Tori Hargreaves) is another musical highlight.

Of the villains of the piece Ewan Gillies is in particularly fine form as a wolfish campaign manager with political ambitions of his own (his number The Tail That Wags the Dog is deliciously scheming) with Chris Coleman as a slimy Lord Bellingham, far from the Fairy Godmother he claims to be.

Much of the comedy is down to the hilarious Michaela Stern and Natalie Harman recreating their vulgar Union roles of the ugliest of stepsisters, Clodagh and Dana, far from their chirpy and innocent Eurovision namesakes, always finding the wrong Mr Right. Their on the nose comic timing is an instant hit with the audience and they reach the unrefined heights in I’m So Over Men and the gloriously satirical Fifteen Minutes, in which everyone and everything from Gemma Collins and Bake Off to Piers Morgan and Love Island is unceremoniously name-checked.

From the moment the exuberant ensemble appears on stage for the vivacious opening number, Old Compton Street, Adam Haigh’s choreography is fun and spirited,with Keith’s direction reflecting the overall jollity but carefully showing the moral dilemmas and light political commentary the piece contains. So many of the supporting cast are allowed their own moments to shine, too, with each being given their own characters to play without just having to be the extras: take your own bows Melissa Rose, Jade Bailey, Thomas Ball, Luke Byrne, Ben Darcy, Laura Fulgenzi, Danny Lane, and Savannah Reed.

Add to this wonderful mix the terrific small (but sounding amazingly strong) orchestra directed by Sarah Morrison and some of the most outrageous costumes around in London from newcomer Nicole Garbett and you have a hearty and full-bodied production that often dazzles.

The theatre’s recent use of a traverse style, with the audience seated on opposite sides of a square, allows the layout used in the Union’s production three years ago to be recreated and expanded, though somehow it seems slightly awkward here at times. However, the pink and blue set by Justin Williams is striking in its evocation of Soho life and good use is made of the few movable pieces of scenery.

If “life’s a circus on Old Compton Street” as one of the lyrics declares, then Soho Cinders delivers all the fun of the fairy tale with a sparkling modern edge that gives the Charing Cross Theatre yet another hit to add to an already impressive list.

David Guest

Images, Pamela Raith

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/

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