Stephen Fry’s seemingly inexhaustible intellectual curiosity has led him from movies and smart-thinking TV to penning everything from novels to guides to classical music and the structures of poetry. Yet it was his lovingly old-fashioned recrafting of the book for “Me and My Girl” that catapulted him to success. The wit, warmth and high-spirits displayed there are back in Fiona Laird’s tight production of his first pantomime for the Old Vic. Fry’s “Cinderella” deserves to be a popular hit — that’s if local reviewers haven’t ruined its chances.
The wildly popular, unfathomably British traditional family entertainment pantomime is vividly theatrical. Age-old vaudeville-style routines are interpolated into fairy tales and the fourth wall is torn down as audiences of all ages loudly cheer heroes, hiss baddies, yell catchphrases and participate fit to bust.
Actors play stock characters, often cross-dressed. For the last two Christmases, Ian McKellen graced the Old Vic stage playing washerwoman Widow Twankey in “Aladdin.” Audiences and most critics were so dazzled by the sight of this classical-actor-cum-movie-star camping it up in garish frocks they overlooked the inept direction, underpowered surrounding performances, flimsy design and the script’s rampant misogyny.
This year, however, several critics have taken one look at Fry’s script replete with standard panto puns and double-entendres and suffered an outbreak of censoriousness bordering on homophobia. This being a show for children and adults, Fry appears in their eyes to have committed a crime — that of adding an innocently performed gay subplot.
Alongside the traditional story, Cinderella’s best friend Buttons (spry and beaming Paul Keating) is now just as eager to find true love. In this version, he too winds up going to the ball where he falls for Prince Charming’s chum Dandini — a normally female role performed here by Oliver Chopping. The gay material might be textual rather than subtextual, but all the PDAs (Public Displays of Affection) are safely heterosexual. And the many jokes aimed at adults are double-edged, leaving children something to laugh at.
What makes this work is Fry’s perfect juggling of tone, no mean feat when the audience age-range is so wide. There’s an archness about his handling of the story — Fry’s kingdom is the self-styled “Pantoland” — but also a winning innocence.
The humor is largely sharp rather than crude. Tawdriness is reserved for the typically vulgar, drag ugly sisters (another panto staple). A white-trash pair named Dolce and Gabbana, they are played by stroppy Mark Lockyer, looking like Amy Winehouse with a hairy chest, and Hal Fowler wearing a perma-sneer.
Much of the control rests with Sandi Toksvig, a radio and TV presenter and performer — and out lesbian — serving as deliciously droll narrator in fake mustache and smoking jacket. Within seconds, Toksvig has the audience in the palm of her hand with her briskly confiding, no-nonsense manner. She sounds as if she’s channeling Fry and she’s very funny.
The surprise of the night is the depth of feeling evoked by Madeline Worrall’s quiet, captivating Cinderella. With a Judi Dench-like break in her voice, Worrall is bewitching as a pragmatic girl floored by a shortage of cleaning products. She also has a strong singing voice that soars when escaping into hope and longing via Anne Dudley’s score and Fry’s typically literate if not always idiomatic lyrics.
She’s balanced by Joseph Millson’s equally strong-voiced, nicely timed Prince Charming. Cinderella’s naivety is grist to the mill for her long-suffering Fairy Godmother (Pauline Collins) who upbraids her for being a wimp while whipping up a coach from a massively inflated pumpkin.
That effect is the most obvious piece of design from Stephen Brimson-Lewis, whose sets are a simple but inventive delight. Flats slide in and out like a giant iris creating different spaces. His palace may be little more than a set of sparkling wing pieces in perspective but they sparkle delightfully. And his downstairs kitchen is storybook heaven, complete with glove-puppet mice that don’t so much steal the scene as commit grand larceny.
Such lunacy is kept in check by helmer Laird, who keeps a tight rein on proceedings that could easily have gotten out of hand. In all but one ineffective slapstick scene, she keeps the show buoyant, even when structuring scenes in which children are invited up on to the stage.
When so many pantos survive on limp scripts, smutty jokes, generalized overacting — this season’s rival production at the Barbican of “Jack and the Beanstalk” commits most of those crimes — it’s frankly a joy to watch one that plays a new spin on traditional fare with high production values.