We know Pantomime’s of old, what we expect is fixed and what the show expects of its audience is obvious: never more so than at Newbury’s festive production by The Corn Exchange and explicitly named Hiss and Boo.
The mood of the show and the rules are firmly set as the first chart-pleaser sounds. Theatre assistants from the sides start the Pantomimic-high-clap, which the audience keenly follow. It goes on a little too long and it is with some relief that the first crack of sparks rise from the stage and the Fairy Godmother (hiply named F.G.) comes on stage, dressed as a pink aviator. Full steam ahead.
It is the story with which everyone is well acquainted. Poor girl (this time owner of an Orphanage, prior to her Step mothers arrival) is cruelly controlled by her Wicked Stepmother and made to wait on her two Ugly sisters. Yet with the help of her F.G. she is able to escape to live happily ever after with the Prince.
Writer and director Phil Willmott, gives the story of Cinderella contextual relevance by setting it locally in Newbury bottom, with flippant boasts of new high street shops opening, Nandos and jibes at other local towns and cities- with Reading bearing a lot of the brunt. The two cross-dressed Ugly sister are comically modernised, as graduates from Chelsea and Essex academies giving them a twang of Made in Chelsea and TOWIE respectively. The saturation of modern songs arranged by musical director, Mark Aspinal, has an oddly nostalgic quality of citing the year’s musical hits. This was at its best when the posh Prince gave a quintessentially English rendition of some of the year’s urban classics, giving it a very catchy and unique twist. Stephen Kirwan who played Prince Charming also showed that he could move like Mick Jagger and the stunning array of dance was performed throughout with elegant energy. As we have come to expect from Pantomime this was an all-singing, all-dancing spectacle.
Billy Bumpkin was another welcome addition to the normal Cinderella cast and has become a Newbury Pantomime staple. His well known catchphrase ‘Alright my lovers’ prompted an enthusiastic reply from the audience ‘Alright Billy’. His simple-character is Hardyesque and I can’t help thinking he’d be great friends with Oak or Giles Winterborne, both thwarted lovers and excruciating kind beings. It is Billy Bumpkin’s sub-plot that really made the show stand out, especially for me, who always waits, baited breath, for the old conventions to be overthrown. His passion for Ella resonates with all unrequited lovers and especially ‘nice boys’ who are readily cast as the best friend and never the boyfriend. His sadness is touching and realistic. Yet it was too much to hope for that Cinderella would have changed her path and found herself with the village idiot. Never mind: Billy recovers fairly quickly and finds himself as the match maker to the tradition-crossed lovers. He directs the Prince to Newbury Bottom where lo and behold, Cinderella fits into the glass slipper and there’s going to be a wedding.
The audience are all hired as choir members to sing at the wedding, fully-equipped with arm pumping and upper-body arm racing. F.G. and Billy are the choir conductors and cheerfully reproach unwilling audience members. The theatre is split in two and a competition between both sides ensues. The atmosphere was thick with animation and I have to say, it was a highlight of the show. I only wish it had been incorporated earlier in the performance. Yet you can’t have it all, and there were other parts where audience members were pulled out to play ‘take me out’ and of course incessant opportunities to hiss and boo.
Just before the conclusion of the show, an unexpected knock comes at the door: it’s Jack with his magic beans. This serves as a reminder for the next festive pantomime, which is already beginning to sell. I can’t wait to see Billy as Jack’s side-kick, let’s hope he gets at least one golden egg.
There are still five more shows to catch the tireless cast in Cinderella, which is due to finish on January 6th.