In the grand scheme of things, it seems a tad tone-deaf to complain that one of the real woes of 2020 was its complete absence of anything approaching an annual Panto season. Nevertheless, it makes this year’s return to the season of dames, damsels and double entendres a doubly exciting foray for audiences at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre, with this also being the longstanding venue’s first in-house panto production – in conjunction with Imagine Theatre – in several years (having recently housed a string of QDOS offerings).
As a debut production and mission statement for Christmases yet to come, Cinderella rips up any hesitancy, doubt or tepid expectations and hurls them through its LED windows to present a dazzling, bombastic and frequently hilarious pantomime experience that is easily the equal of – and in some cases better than – its regional and West End peers.
The Grand and Imagine strike gold in realising the trifecta of a quality Panto being its cast, the laughs and the overall festive razzmatazz.
Bringing back one of the industry’s finest dames, Grand veteran Ian Adams – this time trotting out to the tune of Dame Penny Pockets – being the first coup. Adams is, pound for pound, one of the best Panto dames you can wish for, and he’s on top form once again here, from his trademark singalong (“he don’t care!”) to a suitably chaotic run on ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’, Adams proves once again a safe, funny and sarcastic presence throughout. He’s well-met by Tam Ryan as the loveable, bumbling Buttons, who ploughs through a carriage load of local quips and references (Tettenhall somehow seeming to come off both best and worst…) and proves himself a firm audience favourite with his jokey sidekick turn.
“Adams is, pound for pound, one of the best Panto dames you can wish for, and he’s on top form once again here.”
Speaking of local, Black Country born-and-bred Evie Pickerell, of CBeebies fame, is an engaging and likeable presence in the titular role, with some fun deadpan moments, dance sequences and a tune or two spicing up the normally bland and passive heroine. Elsewhere, Julie Stark, Ella Biddlecombe and Britt Lenting are all tremendous fun as the villainous Baroness Hardup and her terrible offspring, respectively. All three are in fine voice, Stark vamps up the show’s lead baddie with real relish and gusto, whilst Biddlecombe and Lenting are scene-stealing highlights; laugh-out-loud funny as they pick on unsuspecting members of the audience, and generally channel plenty of ‘Gen Z’ instagram, insta-fame obnoxiousness, whether strutting about on stage belting out The Eurythmics, or just generally being wickedly good fun.
Poster boys for Cinderella, Pritchard siblings AJ and Curtis strike suitably handsome and dashing presences on stage as Prince Charming and Dandini, with the former cutting a sharp rug throughout (though with admirably few Strictly references… although a glitter ball pun joke early on is particularly sharp), and Curtis displaying some unexpectedly impressive vocals in not one, but two, musical numbers. Whilst neither will likely be troubling the Oliviers any time soon, they are innately likeable and irrepressible, clearly game for a laugh, and pitch-perfect for these kind of dashing, occasionally self-deprecating, and frequently silly, roles.
“AJ and Curtis… are innately likeable, clearly game for a laugh, and pitch-perfect for these kind of dashing, occasionally self-deprecating, and frequently silly, roles.”
On the subject of funny, there’s plenty to laugh at here, with a surprisingly self-contained book that doesn’t oversaturate itself with intertextual and meta references, but is still positively stuffed with welcome staples (the old chocolate bar name number) and a heap of physical gags, set pieces and quintessential Panto tomfoolery. See, for instance: a double-barrel of fake leg and never-ending stocking silliness when the sisters attempt to try on the famous glass slipper.
With regards to its staging, Cinderella quite frankly knocks its predecessors out of the water, with designers Mark Walters, Nina Dunn and Jamie Corbidge crafting a visually stunning fairytale world on stage, namely courtesy of a series of enormous framing LED panels that beam transitions, effects and a myriad of storybook locales of a quality, scale and impact that wouldn’t seem out of place in London. The marriage of lighting, video and screens isn’t exactly new, even for Panto, but it is so colourfully, ambitously and seamlessly executed here that it truly elevates the production as a whole into something aesthetically splendid and, well, grand.
Ticking so many boxes, tickling plenty of funny bones, and with a game, likeable cast featuring some real Panto pros, there’s a lot to love here. Sure, some of it may be a touch familiar, but who would have it any other way? Technically and artistically, Cinderella works real theatre magic, and as a litmus test for Wolverhampton’s return foray into producing its own unique brand of pantomime magic, it passes with flying pumpkin colours.
Go to the ball at the Grand, and a ball you shall most certainly have.
A pair of balls…
It must be that time of year.