The composer’s glorious new musical deserves fuller audiences – and its talented workforce deserved to be given better warning about its future
Buns N Roses, the cheeky opening number in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, sets the scene in Belleville, imagined by writer Emerald Fennell as an “aggressively picturesque” place whose supremely buffed citizens keep their dirty laundry out of sight. “We’re so dependent on the tourist trade to fill our cupboards and our coffers,” observe the chorus of the town, before the Queen unveils a grand statue. “Should be a luc-ra-tive att-ract-tion” she predicts in a contented staccato.
But after a troubled run that included umpteen opening night postponements and a shutdown of several weeks amid the Omicron crisis, Lloyd Webber’s latest attraction is to close early, despite London tourism beginning to bounce back from its 2020-21 lows and the West End’s footfall slowly returning towards pre-pandemic levels. Cinderella had been booking until February next year and the announcement on Sunday night of its closure next month came as a surprise to many of the cast and crew, including several actors who had been about to join the company and who expressed their shock on social media.
Among them was Daisy Twells who said she had spent weeks going in and out of London for rounds of auditions, had been trying to find a place to live and had mapped out the next year of her life in what would have been her first West End show. Summer Strallen, who had been due to take over the role of the Queen and went for a wig fitting as recently as last week, said that her diary was also now unexpectedly and alarmingly empty.
A spokesperson for Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group said that “everyone involved in Cinderella was contacted by call, email or in person (some through agents) before the news went live in the evening” and that “every effort was made to ensure people were notified before it went live”. But for several of the show’s newest recruits, tweets and news stories about the closure reached them before their official notice did. Bear in mind that this was a bank holiday weekend: informing a huge number of workers, simultaneously, of such upsetting news requires great consideration and careful timing – why choose Sunday before a public holiday? The fact that some of the leads were already leaving the show soon does not make the situation any easier for the company.
And what a company they are. I was at the Gillian Lynne theatre again on Saturday afternoon to see the show for a second time after it left me giddy on opening night in August. I wondered if it would have the same effect and, if anything, I enjoyed it even more. In the lead role, Carrie Hope Fletcher is a phenomenon (I’d forgotten she has quite so many solos) and Ivano Turco, who only graduated in the summer of 2020, is a fantastic Prince Sebastian, navigating his feelings for his childhood mucker Cinderella as well as his unease with royal duties. Turco’s solo, Only You, Lonely You, is delivered tenderly and the jesting duets he and Fletcher share are a delight. Gloria Onitiri is in such blazing voice as the Godmother that you long for her to have a bigger part. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt – inexplicably the only cast or creative from the show to earn an Olivier nomination – is still a haughty hoot as the Stepmother, while Georgina Castle and Laura Baldwin are a double whammy of wicked vanity as her daughters. They get some of Fennell’s prickliest lines and, in the helter-skelter song Unfair, relish some of David Zippel’s snappiest lyrics too. Throw in Rebecca Trehearn’s Queen, with an incestuous lust for her strapping son Prince Charming, and you think how unfortunate it was that this most panto of musicals was closed for so much of the festive period through concerns about the Omicron variant.
The show earned five- and four-star reviews in August and the matinee I saw – alongside several others who had already seen the show once – ended with a standing ovation in the packed stalls. But the booking system shows lots of seats are still empty for the remaining shows. How come? Its stop-start run won’t have helped build an audience and, while many saw the composer as theatrical Marmite already, his declarations last year about risking arrest to open the show at full capacity won’t have endeared him to many. Ticket prices aren’t the key issue: there are two ticket bands under £20 with lots of those seats still left. There are certainly issues of confidence about returning to theatres when the majority of an audience is unmasked; I didn’t see very many masks at Cinderella.
Other mega musicals, including Lloyd Webber’s own masked avenger, in The Phantom of the Opera, and hits such as Hamilton, are also showing plenty of available seats this week. So is another fairytale, Frozen, but I wonder if part of the problem with Cinderella is how, unlike that Disney juggernaut, it isn’t targeted squarely at a young audience. Belleville is a barbed, bitchy place with thrusting bare-chested “hunks” bragging about their sexual conquests. You might think twice about taking kids along; equally, an adult audience may well wonder if it’s a family-focused show rather than the filthy, rip-roaring (if occasionally moving) night that it is.
This time I sat in the revolve section of the stalls which, in the second half, spins you around during a waltz scene so that you end up underneath the set’s rococo frame, watching the show as if on stage. It’s the sort of coup de théâtre that you’d imagine would have helped to win audiences back when the industry was promoting the unrivalled thrill of live entertainment during the pandemic.
Cinderella became a much-publicised flagship show for that task, a brand new musical in the commercial sector which had far less help from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund than subsidised theatres. “We led the charge to reopen the West End,” said Lloyd Webber in his statement about the early closure. But the way that closure was handled suggests the industry has a long way to go if it really wants to “build back better”.
Chris Wiegand is the Guardian’s stage editor