“Wishing for the normal kind of dream,
Trouble is they’re harder than they seem”
Soho Cinders is a Stiles + Drewe show which has long been in development, 11 years since the original concept was devised, during which they’ve worked on Mary Poppins, the sadly departed Betty Blue Eyes and their new show Soapdish. But all the while, this modern-day gay retelling (of sorts) of the Cinderella tale has been burbling away, some of the songs were previewed at the A Spoonful of Stiles and Drewe concert in 2008 and subsequently released on CD – one in particular, ‘(They Don’t Make) Glass Slippers’ becoming a favourite amongst young male singers, Gareth Gates being my particular favourite rendition. Having the book retweaked one more time by Elliot Davis, Stiles + Drewe decided to launch the show in a one-off concert version at the Queen’s Theatre, in an evening in support of, and maintaining their long-standing connection with, the Teenage Cancer Trust, following last year’s concert at Wilton’s Music Hall.
Our Cinderella is Robbie, a young Londoner who works as an escort in order to fund his way through law school so he can contest his mother’s will which apparently left her coffee shop to his wicked stepsisters. Our prince is James Prince, a prospective London mayoral candidate, who has a glamorous fiancée but as it turns out, has been conducting a secret affair with Robbie, although unaware of his other activities. When they are flung together unexpectedly at a fundraising party, secrets tumble out, truths are exposed and though no shoes are left behind (it’s a phone instead), the fairytale ending does not necessarily seem guaranteed.
Though it was advertised as a concert performance, it was nice to see that a lot of effort had gone into the show, director Jonathan Butterell staging quite a few of scenes, using the company well and employing Drew McOnie to introduce some sharp and witty choreography to some of the numbers which brought the added bonus of the wonderful Ebony Molina amongst others. And George Stiles led a brilliant sounding 15-person orchestra in playing what has to be one of the most accessible scores that this writing team has come up with. Whether it is writing in a modern-day context for once, or the freedom to be as funny as they like (my companion thought the humour was quite panto-like, I wasn’t quite as sure), but it is packed with catchy, witty, perfectly-rounded nuggets of musical genius. Full ensemble numbers like ‘Old Compton Street’ and ‘Who’s That Boy?’ fizzled with energy and great moves and the refrain of ‘You Shall Go The Ball’ is still working its way round my brain, the best of ways!
And to round it all off in the best of ways was the all-star casting which made this a genuinely superb evening, perfectly framed by Sandi Toksvig’s dry narration, full of razor-sharp quips. Jos Slovick made a very appealing Robbie, working against stereotype well and sounding excellent, matched superbly by the tall drink of water that is Michael Xavier as James Prince, the bisexual would-be mayor whose online hook-up is threatening to turn into something more as captured in the tender ‘Gypsies of the Ether’. There was great work from the ladies in their life too: the sparky Amy Lennox as Velcro, Robbie’s wisecracking childhood friend who gets some of the funniest lines and the glorious Hannah Waddingham as James’ fiancée Marilyn, in a part that feels underwritten but does come to life in the second act as we discover she knows more than she is letting on. Their duet ‘Let Him Go’ towards the end of the show is a beautiful song, all the more powerful for its understated performance from both ladies.
As befits the panto origins, there’s a pair of ugly sisters who provide the comic highlight of the show with their filthy humour and their show-stopping number I’m So Over Men. Beverly Rudd and Suzie Chard literally brought the house down with their potty-mouthed brassiness, making us laugh so much they had to perform the song again as an encore so it could be re-recorded. David Bedella made a highly effective Machiavellian campaign manager, his powerful vocal showcased well in Spin and there were small but effective parts for Sharon D Clarke and Clive Carter in an ensemble that shone throughout the evening.
As an occasion, Soho Cinders was a brilliant Sunday evening in the theatre and the decision to record the evening – the CD can already be pre-ordered from Dress Circle – is a canny one, meaning that those unable to make this show will be able to hear it and continue to show it love. As a piece of theatre, I found that there was still some work to be done on the book which doesn’t really hang together too well, especially in the second half where there’s an improbable rush to resolve every single storyline. I suppose part of my doubt comes with not being entirely sure what the show is trying to be: a piece of genuine musical theatre, a pantomime of sorts, or indeed a mixture of both. There’s something lovely in the straight-up (no pun intended) depiction of a cutely mis-matched same-sex love affair which made me want to take it a bit more seriously than the overly neat ending allowed, with the speediest piece of legal advice I’ve ever seen.
I hope then that this remains something of a work-in-progress but also that a future life for the show is soon forthcoming. The CD will be a must-buy once it is released since it is such a very strong score sung excellently and who knows, you might even hear me laughing on it. Given the reception last night, the audience is definitely ready for Soho Cinders here in London, surely it’s just a case of finding the right (Soho) venue for it!