Review – Cinderella by Stephen Fry at the Old Vic

Wednesday 12 December 2007

If Stephen Fry wrote a pantomime it would be just like this.

Yes, it’s everything you would expect from the man: clever, knowledgeable, confident, amusingly pedantic, self-referential, gender-bending and very, very funny.

Oh and as it’s that terrible season again, turns out to be rather appropriately, as camp as Christmas.

And not at all aimed at children.

Just as well, as (a) the Whingers don’t like children and (b) there were precious few of them at the Old Vic last night to see Cinderella. In fact, when the time came to haul a couple of kiddies up onto the stage, it seemed like a minor miracle that they managed to find any.

In the event, they managed to secure a 10 year old and a 13 year old. There seemed to be no-one younger in the audience and it was probably just as well: the “business” they were called upon to take part in was handled by the show’s narrator Sandi Toksvig (left) who – in addition to sporting a moustache – lampooned the youngsters as remorselessly as she would an adult (“You have the knowing look of an estate agent”); anyone younger than 10 would probably have burst into tears. Now that the Whingers would pay double to see.

Mind you, it was a close thing. Last night was Toksvig ‘s first night back in the narrator’s (flying) chair following a chest infection which caused the press night to be postponed until tomorrow.

Even as the Whingers set off for the theatre they didn’t even know if the diminutive Dane would be back; they feared not. Andrew took it as something to do with karma. Perhaps if the Whingers didn’t approach Christmas with such Grinch-like dispositions (they make Scrooge look like Pollyanna) they might not be unwittingly spreading their curse on seasonal theatre (having, you will recall, already attended the Hodge(less)-podge of La Cage Aux Folles at the Menier).

For Phil, Toksvig’s illness was merely further proof that south of the river lies nothing but disease, the inevitable result of under-privileged people’s casual approach to hygiene.

Anyway, Toksvig was a real trouper and dragged herself in (apparently she is still not right).

Now, our main advice is not to read the reviews because they are bound to contain some spoilers regarding Fry’s remix of the Cinderella story. Although there is nothing the Whingers enjoy more than spoiling the fun of others, on this occasion they feel bound to allow you, dear reader, to be as delighted as they were.

So we shall just make some very general observations.

Firstly, the combination of Fry and Toksvig is utterly compelling.

Secondly, it has most of the the components of the traditional panto such as kids on the stage and an audience singalong, although the slapstick scene does need beefing up with something more threatening than a dab of shaving foam on paper plates.

Thirdly, the cast is great. Surely never before have so many people from Midsomer Murders appeared on stage together. It may not sound much, but this is surely a step up from the customary “Casualty, The Bill” in the biogs.

Paul Keating (right, Seymour in the Menier’s Little Shop of Horrors) plays Buttons with aplomb and gets a well-deserved round of applause for flawlessly delivering a very long shopping list cruelly written in by Fry.

Wicked Stepmother, Debbie Chazen (above, The Smoking Room, Titty Bang Bang) seems as though she has been playing panto all her life.

Hal Fowler and Mark Lockyer play the ugly sisters (Dolce and Gabbana) very effectively by simply being blokes (and a very hairy one in one case) in dresses (left).

Particularly pleasing was the casting of Madeleine Worrall as Cinderella (right with Prince Charming, Joseph Millson, also excellent), traditionally an insipid role played by an insipid actress in an insipid manner but here written and played with spunk and humour.

Nor should the Whingers pass over Dandini who merits a mention for his name alone: Oliver Chopping (by the way, search for him on Google if you are looking for a Jamie Oliver chopping board). It takes a brave man to appear in his underpants with a six pack painted on his stomach (as Phil can testify).

But the big surprise of the night was Pauline Collins OBE as the Fairy Godmother. Collins is, of course, a terrific actress and great at comedy, but who knew she could steal every scene playing a character not unlike Catherine Tate’s Gran.

The music (by Oscar winner Anne Dudley) and songs are marvellous (although there are some sound problems which make it difficult to make out the words) and the choreography (Francesca Jaynes) sparkles. Full marks to director Fiona Laird for pulling all the talent in the same direction.

Did we mention that we enjoyed it all? It reminded Andrew of the ““This is like children’s theatre for 40 year old gay people” line in Xanadu and we just can’t imagine how it will go down with the kids. Although they might appreciate the singing mice, most of this stuff is going to go way over their heads (“According to Plato, happiness is contingent on virtues” “We love Tesco; it keeps the riff raff out of Waitrose”). This is unashamedly panto for adults and the Whingers hope it catches on so that pantos of the future can become child-free zones. Then, and only then, will be we truly happy.

Wider Discourse Notes

  • The woman in the coatcheck was very helpful offering to put Andrew’s bag and coat in the same place and charging him only for one item. Andrew hopes he hasn’t got her into trouble by revealing this act of kindness.
  • The price of Old Vic programmes has crept up to £4.
  • Toksvig has been very prolific of late, perhaps contributing to her ill health. She’s written a piece about her acting experience here and a panto diary here.


  • Apparently, Stephen Fry hasn’t actually seen the show yet.
  • An ad-libbed gag about the absence of Kevin Spacey from proceedings had to be dropped after its first appearance because it turned out afterwards that Kev was in the audience.

Stalls-Bar-Johnny Moment

After the show, the Whingers caught up with Paul Keating (left) to pull his Buttons apart. Actually, that’s not true, but it’s one of the few double entendres not employed by Mr Fry in Cinderella so we thought we would use it.

Paul looked startled when Andrew kissed him on the cheeks (add your own double entendre here) but he recovered his composure sufficiently to listen patiently to Phil’s ramblings.

Actually, the Whingers were very complimentary although they did feel compelled to pull Keating up on the fact that when Buttons loses one of his buttons his uniform still features all the buttons. This, they felt, utterly destroyed the suspension of disbelief they had established and was – at the very least – a serious contravention of the psychological contract between production and audience which betrayed the trust extended by the party of the second part on the party of the first part.

Historical footnotes

Phil’s earliest memory was of a trip to the panto. No, not as Andrew insists the Commedia dell’arte of the Italian middle ages, but a trip to see Sandy (Can You Hear Me, Mother?) Powell as the dame at the Theatre Royal Bath. The panto was Little Miss Muffet (due for a revival surely?) or Goldilocks and the Three Bears, his memory is fading fast, but was reminded recently, by his (much sharper) mother that the colour of one of the costume fabrics in the show made a huge impression on him and “wouldn’t shut up talking about it”. Now who’d have thought that?

Andrew’s earliest memory of a panto was seeing a production of Babes in the Wood at the Malvern Festival Theatre which opened with the chorus singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”. He remembers nothing else. His second panto memory is seeing Carry On star Kenneth Connor playing Buttons, probably at Birmingham. Disappointingly, Andrew recalls nothing of the fabrics which featured in either production.


13 Responses to “Review – Cinderella by Stephen Fry at the Old Vic”

  1. Great review and very appetizing as I hope to be seeing it soon.

  2. Seeing this next week with a fellow yank. Looks like it’ll be a hoot, if an untraditional one – very glad to have seen Dick W. at Hackney first. Now if only it were easier and cheaper to get up to Birmingham for Aladdin…

  3. daveonthego Says:

    It was so good, I loved every second. Stephen Fry has redeemed himself in my estimation after the truly apalling “HIV and ME” dramamentary that he fronted. I especially loved the bovine Lesbian. No I am not talking about the delightful and superb Sandi Toksvig! I don’t wish to throw in a spoiler. I agree with you, Buttons really shines!

  4. Susie Says:

    I agree – Pauline Collins was spectacular amongst a stellar cast – absolutely stole her scenes. I was worried that the row of pubescent girls in the Gallery were going to fall headlong into the Stalls as they leaned as far out as possible to attempt to see under Mr Millsons dressing gown (and who can blame them ?). Thank you, Stephen Fry, for a panto scene which features two mostly naked men in the shower.

    How I will explain that to my children when I take them in january I am not sure.

  5. Arthur Says:

    “Paul looked startled when Andrew kissed him on the cheeks (add your own double entendre here)”

    Surely you meant “insert your own double entendre here”…

  6. Whingers, Could you please explain the English phenomena known as “panto” because I dare so most (not all) on the other side of the pond, don’t get what this is all about.

    Sorry to put you on the spot, but would love to hear your take on it all.

    And Happy HanaRamaKwanzMas to you both!

  7. SOB: I’m not a Whinger, but I’ll attempt to explain in yank terms for both our sakes…

    Panto is a very, VERY British children’s play. They start with a fairy tale, and embellish it with songs (both original and parodies/swipes from the current pop and disney catalogues). There are tonnes of jokes, most of which are bad puns or physical comedy since this is, primarily, for kids. However, good panto has a few political/location-based/double entendre moments thrown in to keep mum and dad on their toes. Sets and costumes are lavish to give it a big fancy feel. The key players in a panto are:

    Principal Boy – Usually played by a girl (if done properly), who shows off lots of machismo and spirit and wears a tunic and tights. If you’ve seen any Takarazuka musicals from Japan, you’ll get an idea of what a PB is like.

    Comedian – A supporting character involved in the slapstick and usually has a big trait that gets them attention (ie Idle Jack falling asleep every time he’s on stage in Dick Whittington)

    Villain – Speaks in rhyme and is a proper melodrama baddie

    Good Fairy – Also speaks in rhyme, provides lots of Deus Ex/last minute saves.

    Pantomime horse – two people in a horse costume. Gotta have one.

    The Dame – This is the big one panto is truly known for. A female character played by a man in a dress AS a man in a dress – everybody knows it’s a man and there are frequently jokes like “I love you. If I marry you I shall provide surprises every day.” “Not as big as the surprise you’ll be getting.”

    Frequently, one of the characters above will be played by a C, D, or Z list celebrity in need of the paycheque.

    Panto’s other big claim to fame is its extensive use of audience participation: the characters frequently speak to the audience and create a system of callbacks, so that when a character says “Hi everybody!” upon entry the audience screams “Hi Jack!”. Callbacks may also be plot specific, summoning a character onstage just in time to save someone or make a comedic entrance.

    Of course, there are also a few panto standbys that everybody should know. There’s a guarantee that the villain, a needed prop, or a platoon of daleks will try to sneak up on a hero, and the audience is required to scream “IT’S BEHIND YOU!” before the character turns around. A call-and-response session of “Oh no it isn’t!” and “Oh yes it is!” is also mandatory. Last, good panto has a singalong at the end (while everyone makes their final costume change) where a big curtain drops with the lyrics and everyone sings along with a simple tune.

    It sounds corny and lame, but Panto is a hell of a lot of fun to attend, and it’s what most British children see as their first theatrical experience (big, colourful, lets them be a bit rowdy, simple plot). Panto also defies class, as everybody goes to one (be it the posh end at the old vic or the multiracial working class version at Stratford East). It’s also the big fundraiser for many regional theatres in the UK. If you check the NYC listings (and possibly include upstate and NJ regional), you’ll almost certainly find a small playhouse putting on a “British style” or “English style” pantomime.

  8. webcowgirl Says:

    I have a theory that panto is why English people will actually GO to plays, unlike most Americans. If only we would start them young!

    I would like to recommend the gallery on the site It’s Behind You! if you’d like to see some great shots of Panto costumes.

  9. Sadly going out of fashion in panto is the “spesh”; in the old days when pantomime was basically an armature into which to slot comedians and variety acts with their shticks intact, there would be moments like, “Oh, no, we’re lost and all alone! / But here’s a man to play the xylophone!”

    Still present and correct is the “slosh” scene – that really is the technical term – basically a custard-pie or gunge routine.

    The Old Vic Cinderella has slosh but no spesh.

    I’m surprised how strait-laced so many reviews have been about the filth. Yes, there’s a great deal of it, but somehow it seems far less *vulgar* than, say, Jonathan Harvey’s similar gags in the Barbican panto. Fry’s script just seems to me to carry them off with altogether more elan, so that if I were a parent I wouldn’t have reservations about taking kids aged more than 5 or 6, as the gags would either pass overhead or the kids would get them anyway based on school-playground learning.

    Also it includes a classic early 20th-century witticism by F.E. Smith, and another by either Mrs Patrick Campbell or Margot Asquith.

    And I once acted with Matthew White and I spent two and a half hours in the Old Vic failing to recognise him as the King, DESPITE HAVING SEEN HIM IN THE REHEARSAL ROOM A FORTNIGHT EARLIER.

    I like this show a lot.

  10. Appreciate the full explanation RZ, especially since most Americans associate pantomime with the mute mime.

  11. Thanks, RZ, for saving us the trouble. Most helpful.

    @ Ian Shuttleworth – thanks for reminding us about the now-forgotten “Spesh” element. This should be revived post haste.

    Sadly, there are few Music Hall acts (that’s Vaudeville to you yanks) left to assist with this project.

    I remember a brief TV revival for a marvellous woman called Terri Carol who did a wonderful paper tearing act. Sadly her almost 70 year career ended in 1994 when she retired due to arthritis.

    There is a South Bank busker who plays “If I Were a Rich Man” on the xylophone. Perhaps he could be drafted in.

    One of the few marvellous things about TV programmes such as America’s Got Talent is that novelty acts are once again getting an airing:

  12. fred Says:

    perhaps appropriately, saturday night’s performance featured the worst theatre fart i’ve ever had the bad luck to live through. some time near the end of the first act it oozed into the atmosphere, and just hung there, heavy, greasy, sulphurous, redolent of rotting intestines and the worst institutional food. all around people were holding their noses, gasping..

  13. Living in New Zealand, when in London we try and take in as much theatre as possible and Stephen Fry’s ‘Cinderella’ was by far the best of the 4 shows we saw. So bright, colourful, delightful music and hillariously funny – a perfect way to end our last day in London. A definite credit to Stephen

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