I couldn’t think of a lovelier way to kick off our own annual season of panto visits than at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre watching Cinderella, a festive frolic now run by pantomime giant, Qdos Entertainment.
An all-round feast of sparkling family entertainment would be the perfect description of a show that appeals to young and old in equal measure; whether it’s the sight of Buttons’ brave attempt at The Floss, witnessing an auditorium full of little ones leaping to their feet at the sound of Baby Shark (yes, it has over 2 billion views on YouTube!), or over-their-heads, cheese-filled jokes such as “What’s a Shih Tzu?”… “A zoo with no animals!” Alan McHugh and producer Jonathan Kiley’s well-balanced script is full of up-to-date news references and local jokes which give the production an essential and extremely personal touch.
Despite evening performances beginning at the earlier time of 7pm, we’ve had to restrict Mini Sardines to just a hat-trick of shows this year, and The Churchill’s Christmas production is the perfect cracker (even on a school night!), but to be fair the theatre for press night was packed with children.
Veteran bird-of-a-feather and panto regular (after missing out on last year while still in Young Frankenstein at The Garrick Theatre), Lesley Joseph, heads the bill as Fairy Godmother and gives exceptional value for money – so much so that you have to constantly remind yourself that this performer is in her 73rd year, especially when she literally skips down the steps during the finale. Onstage much more than most Fairy Godmothers across the country, Joseph’s years of experience and comic brilliance rightly earns the national treasure her prime position on the show poster – which she reminds us of during a funny “don’t you know who I am?!” moment.
Elsewhere, Charlotte Haines makes a sublime Cinderella who provides the perfect foil to fully bring out the evil in her two Ugly Sisters, Claudia (Graham Hoadly) & Tess (Jack Land Noble)… two names which really made Mini Sardines’ evening, being a big Strictly fan. The scene where the pair force Cinderella to tear up her invitation to the ball is played with so much sinister jealousy – helped by Haines’ truthful portrayal of their downtrodden victim – that we almost felt like offering Mini Sardines special counselling.
In a compact cast, Gary Watson’s camp Dandini provides strong support, as does James Darch’s Prince Charming, although the latter must feel a little left out of all the fun as his sole role appears to be driving the storyline. Someone who certainly does immerse himself into every ounce of available comedy is Phil Reid in his panto debut as Buttons. Not being a household name doesn’t worry this young master of mirth as he justifies Qdos’ confidence in his casting. Perfectly suited to the role, Reid even manages to bring a little hands-on-hips Lee Evans to his performance as he wins over the audience with ease.
The act two number, If I was Not at Hard-Up Hall..., is performed to absolute comic perfection by Joseph, Reid, Hoadly and Land Noble and has the whole audience in stiches. Another moment you simply couldn't write happened on press night when Joseph and Watson read out a list of birthdays in the audience, however, when one little girl's name was met with silence instead of the expected cheer, a lone child's voice called out "She's in the toilet!" for the whole auditorium - and the onstage stars - to hear and then fall about laughing.
The use of real ponies is a tradition well upheld by the producers; all the animatronics in the world - as good as it is - cannot fully replace the real thing. The only sequence I’d question is Cinderella’s rags-to-ball-gown costume change effect, which appeared to be a little underwhelming on press night. Instead of happening as if by ‘magic’, Haines had to unhitch her concealed gown while fully lit. There may well have been a clever lighting cue missed that will surely be swiftly ironed out in time for the next show.
Musically, with tunes from The Greatest Showman and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory thrown in, as well as one or two witty original pieces, Leigh Thompson’s three-piece backing band does wonders to replicate a much larger sound… adding the icing to this very entertaining Christmas cake.
Cinderella runs at Churchill Theatre Bromley until Saturday, 30 December.
More at: churchilltheatre.co.uk/Online/bromley-pantomime-panto-kent