Directors Katy Weir and Jake Smith think it is time to row back from the panto excess associated with Cinderella, so they have returned to the 2011 version by Sally Cookson and Adam Peck. This leans into the more austere Brothers Grimm telling of the tale, cuts out the Fairy Godmother and plays down the narcissism of Ella’s new siblings. The hard-done-by protagonist does magically receive a fancy frock, but she makes it to the ball under her own steam without a pumpkin or a mouse in sight.
Her hasty departure from the palace is not to do with the time but her embarrassment at failing to spot a prince when she sees one.
If that sounds less fun, Weir and Smith never make it seem so in a production full of boisterous audience interaction. It begins before the start when scavenging birds hop over the seating banks on either side of Alison Ashton’s winter woodland set. They help themselves to glasses, chocolate and anything else they can get their claws into, causing chaos even though these same birds will come to be Ella’s saviour as the story unfolds.
Attuned to nature, she is a bird lover, albeit a less bookish one than the prince with his Latin nomenclature. She admires his learning just as he falls for her intuition. They bond over a copy of Collins’s Bird Guide – Evlyne Oyedokun as a good-natured and resilient Ella; Charlie Venables as a geeky and down-to-earth prince. Their mutual attraction is because of a shared passion, not money or status.
The raids on the audience continue and not just for the thrill of it. When Zoe Lambert as Ella’s stepmother issues the girl with seemingly impossible chores, first darning socks, then fixing broken plates, it is the audience, in conjunction with the birds, who must help her get them done. We become invested in her success.
On the downside, the script underplays the misery of Ella’s situation. Her step-siblings, played by Peace Oseyenum and David Fallon, are more spiteful than cruel and less necessary for her to escape from. But enlivened by Ziad Jabero’s syncopated songs, drawing merrily on jazz, R&B, ska and soul, it remains a bright and lively fable.