It’s apt that the new St James Theatre’s first Christmas show should be Cinderella. The venue couldn’t be handier for the ball – Buckingham Palace is just down the road. But this production (first seen at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory last year), with its emphasis on simple, actor-based storytelling, also perfectly fits St James’s intimate thrust stage.
Sally Cookson’s production draws on the Chinese Yeh-Hsien and the Grimms’ Aschenputtel and invests more in psychological truth than some. There are no fairy godmothers or transformed pumpkins here, though there is magic. Cinderella, a lonely orphan, loves to hide in the forest, where she befriends the birds – it is they who come to her rescue when her cruel stepmother sets her impossible tasks; it is they who find her a party frock to attend the prince’s hop. There are kernels of real family misery here: the stepmother is made mean by greed; the ugly sisters become siblings in sailor suits – a boy and a girl – who are not so much ugly as gormless. Step Brother, in particular (a lovely, gawky Tom Godwin), starts to side with Cinderella as the flaws in his mother’s parenting techniques begin to dawn on him.
Our prince meanwhile is a shy, awkward ornithologist, who falls for Cinderella’s bird-calling skills. For him, the idea of marrying a princess brings on an asthma attack and Thomas Eccleshare gets plenty of gentle comedy out of practising his clumsy chat-up lines on the audience. Lisa Kerr makes a sweet, tomboyish Cinderella, who combines her ball-dress with a pair of spangly boots. And there is an excellent performance from Craig Edwards, who transforms before our eyes from Cinderella’s kindly father to her hatchet-faced stepmother, so quietly emphasising the story’s preoccupation with loss and with abuse by those meant to care for you.
The whole show is staged with the sort of rough ingenuity made famous by Kneehigh. All the supporting cast double as birds, strutting, swooping and whooping with a degree of credibility that might prick the interest of any passing cat. Benji Bower accompanies the action with music and the show adroitly balances droll comedy with the dark shadows in the tale. You miss a little of the cheerful vulgarity and raucous abandon of the pantomime versions, but this engaging show draws you into the heart of the story.
This piece has been amended since first publication, when Tom Godwin’s name was incorrectly cited