Generally speaking, if a show’s writer comes out at the start and says that he thinks the show will go ahead unless a meteor hits the theatre, you assume he’s joking about the meteor.
Not so Andrew Lloyd Webber: I finally caught his new musical ‘Cinderella’ on what was technically the fifth opening night it had scheduled for 2021 (and bear in mind it was originally supposed to open in 2020).
The road to opening has been a particularly torturous one, for reasons too complicated to be explained here, but that can easiest be described as ‘covid-related’. Finally though, it’s here! No lockdown, no meteor, no pinging of cast members, no scrap with the government. And I can report back that ‘Cinderella’ is messy, but fun.
With music by Webber, words by 2021 Academy Award winner Emerald Fennell and lyrics by David Zippel, it sets the Cinderella legend in the town Belleville, ‘a town so picturesque every other seems grotesque’ in which everybody and everything is impossibly beautiful, extra-stacked, and extremely shallow (so no ugly sisters… but ugly-on-the-inside sisters).
The only fly in the ointment is Cinderella (Carrie Hope Fletcher). She’s an unkempt goth who would appear to be the sole person in town to have any sense of humour: we meet her after the townspeople correctly deduce that she was the one who defaced a statue of Prince Charming, the town’s ultra-buff heir to the throne (it’s a small town with its own absolute monarchy, best just go with it).
Sadly for the adoring townspeople and their hilariously Marie Antoinette-ish Queen – a truly magnificent Rebecca Trehearn, shamelessly vamping her way through the best turn of the show – Charming is missing, presumed dead. The town is therefore stuck with Sebastian (puppyish newcomer Ivano Turco), his weedy little brother, whose only friend is Cinderella. That is until he’s declared heir to the throne, when suddenly he becomes the most eligible bachelor in Belleville.
Fennell’s dialogue is really very amusing, slyly subverting some of the more patriarchal tropes of the story while avoiding panto territory and employing often scathing wit to depict what’s essentially a town full of hanger-onners.
Nonetheless, beyond the snappy dialogue, the satire feels a bit shaky. Remaking Cinderella into a takedown of human superficiality is a nice enough idea, but there’s something a bit self-defeating about hiring a cast of hot young buff people to send up the idea of hot young buff people.
Fletcher is great, terrific with a quip and with a voice like an angel: in a fairly daft show, much of the emotional firepower is left up to her to deliver, which she absolutely does with a couple of gale-force late ballads. But the character feels confused: it’s fine to have an anarchist Cinders, but there’s not really a convincing explanation as to why this free spirit spends her days in meek servitude to Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s growlingly weird Stepmother. It’s like they half changed the character and just hoped we’d be too distracted by Fletcher’s bovver boots to worry about it.
There are some good ideas, like make Gloria Onitiri’s The Godmother a sort of toxic society makeover artist, who enables Cinderella’s self-loathing by persuading her to doll up for the ball. But as a rule, none of this stuff feels very coherent. Sebastian’s sneering dismissal of the made-over Cinders (who he doesn’t recognise) purely based on her looks feels at least as problematic and superficial as anything the hot buff people do. The deux ex machina of his brother’s unexpected return is amusing, but the implied reasons for his disappearance feel like a missed opportunity for the musical to deal with a more serious topic.
I realise I’ve bleated on like a killjoy here, but when you’re talking about the most famous composer of musical theatre in the world, plus a writer who just won an Oscar, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect something a bit more meticulous. There’s also a very real question of who it’s aimed at: it’s too naughty for little kids, but feels like it shies away from actual adult themes.
Nonetheless: it really is fun. Aside from Fennell’s witty lines and a clutch of great performances from Trehearn, Fletcher et al, it looks great. Gabriela Tylesova’s cut out sets are nice, and there’s a spectacular coup de theatre in the ball scene, where the front half of the stalls rotate along with the stage. That means the stage now occupies the spot previously occupied by the front stalls, bringing the actors into touching distance of the audience – it’s quite a thrill.
The songs are solid: Sebastian and Cinders have a nice, plaintive little love theme, but as a rule with Webber the more OTT it is the better: the campy numbers ‘Hunks’ Song’ and ‘Man’s Man’ are a hoot. There’s maybe nothing for the ages here – and a fair bit of wallpapery tinkling – but Webber delivers the goods for what is clearly a lighter show than many of his works.
And maybe that’s the key to where Webber is at in 2021: after a couple of decades that saw him churning out joyless, self-important nonsense like ‘The Beautiful Game’, ‘Love Never Dies’ and ‘Stephen Ward’, ‘Cinderella’ follows his smash hit ‘School of Rock’ in essentially being a pretty good laugh. Laurence Connor, who has directed all of Webber’s big recent West End shows, revivals and new, feels like a good fit for him. Webber is never going to be revered in the way Sondheim is, but as his cursed ’00s output fades from human memory, he seems to be entering a phase of his career where he just wants to entertain people – and that’s definitely a good thing.