You can always rely on a pantomime to magic up a happily ever after and Cinderella at Milton Keynes Theatre does so with fabulous fairy flair.
This year’s seasonal spectacular is an energetic, enchanting and entertaining romp through Cinders’ rags-to-riches tale. Thanks to the tried-and-tested panto format and the fun-filled, fairy-powered script, audience and cast members alike are guaranteed to have a ball at every performance throughout the show’s Christmas 2023 run.
Fairy 312, a failing fairy in training, will only earn her wings and graduate to fairy godmother status if she can ensure Cinderella is swept off her feet by Prince Charming. Cue a wave of a wand and a sprinkling of wonder and wit! Along the way, theatregoers of all ages get to delight in side-splitting silliness, upbeat songs, lively dancing, colourful costumes and spellbinding special effects.
As anyone who has ever visited pantoland before knows, chaos is to be expected. This Cinderella bursts into tuneful, splendidly choreographed life before cheerfully giving spectators the feeling that the onstage action is flying on a wing and a prayer. However, all that mayhem is magically marshalled by accomplished performers who soar through scenes with showmanship, show-woman-ship and show-fairy-ship.
All-round entertainer Brian Conley is in his element as Cinderella’s jovial best friend, Buttons. He starts the audience participation early on by entrusting us with the singing of a song and the safeguarding of a special present. Before we know it, he is wielding a water pistol, striking a pose with a selfie stick, duetting with an unsuspecting audience member, performing electrifying tricks, perching on a portable toilet. Neither kids nor grown-ups can resist his comedy charm – on press night the auditorium was buzzing with people clapping, laughing and shouting out quips in reply.
Brian last appeared in pantomime at Milton Keynes Theatre in the Christmas 2017 Cinderella, which saw him sharing the gags with Gok Wan’s Fairy Gokmother. This time, Brian is chief jokester and he milks every moment. The show references his links to Strictly Come Dancing (he put the ha ha into the cha cha when he partnered professional dancer Amy Dowden in 2017) and EastEnders (he has played Thomas “Rocky” Cotton for the last three years), with familiar voiceovers and musical interludes featured. There are also brief reprisals of a catchphrase and sketch from his own television show, which was broadcast in the early nineties (his jaunty commentary acknowledges that the origins of these will have gone over the heads of many audience members, but it doesn’t matter because the hilarity is infectious).
Brian’s Buttons relishes ribbing Cinderella’s cruel stepsisters, Tess (Ben Stock) and Claudia (Neal Wright). Dressed in outrageous outfits, the sisters garner no affirmative compliments with their “ain’t we gorgeous” chorus. They justifiably get all the boos, as well as lots of laughs when they totter out trussed up as Barbie girls and are presented as the “light entertainment” at the royal ball.
Singer Sarah Vaughan (one quarter of international classical crossover group Ida Girls) is a beautiful leading lady and fairy-tale princess as the sweet and spirited Cinderella. She shares a lovely romantic duet with Prince Charming (James Darch) – whose presence in picturesque Campbell Park is made possible because he has swapped places with his faithful aide, Dandini (Owen Stringer) – and gamely throws herself into assorted slapstick antics.
Lucy Conley (yes, she is Brian’s daughter) is warm and funny as plucky Fairy 312. She truly shines – not only because she wears sparkly pink legwarmers and sequinned trainers, but also because she proves she can carry a tune within minutes of the show opening. There are some great instances of strong comic timing and cheeky interactions with her dad too.
Jane McMurtrie’s choreography is varied and gives the ensemble performers ample opportunity to showcase turns, leaps, tricks and partnering skills. The village scenes are vibrant and demonstrate the story-telling, scene-setting prowess of an engaging, cleanly executed dance number. Later, as Fairy 312 gathers together what she needs to cast a spell to prepare Cinderella for an evening at the palace, a troupe of tap-dancing pumpkins enter the kitchen. Later still, ladies in wide-skirted silk gowns and feathery headdresses sway around their blue-suited male partners at the ball. This combination of quality, invention and extravagance is a heartening mixture, which is sure to inspire the next generation of aspiring performers and dance-loving audiences.
Without giving too much more away, the transformation of Cinderella’s simple dress into a ballgown is pure scissor-inspired sorcery. And that is before she leaves for the ball in her magnificent horse-drawn carriage! What are you waiting for? Get your tickets booked and see for yourself why Cinderella leaves everyone flying high for the interval and feeling grateful for the glitz and giggles by the end of the show.
Approximate running time: Act One is 60 minutes, the interval is 20 minutes and Act Two is 55 minutes.
*Production photography is courtesy of Milton Keynes Theatre.
Cinderella continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Sunday 14 January 2024.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.