The Sublime Cinderella at Hackney Empire

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I woke up this morning thinking what, oh what possessed me to get panto tickets for this afternoon. There are, you might have noticed, only two days in each weekend and once one goes, there’s only one more left. That’s it. It isn’t a bottomless glass. A weekend is a ticking time bomb, with a panic attack only ever seconds away, and the panic only ends when the alarm clock rings bright and early on Monday morning and brings with it impending paranoia about your work, all your colleagues and your purpose in life. The working week has been so hectic lately, not just teaching but dealing with a lot of things that seem to dog the teaching, at least when I’m doing it – counselling students on various eighteen-year-old dramas (I remember mine, that’s the problem), dealing with the fallout from things a colleague said to some students, various meetings and mindless bureaucracy, and goodness knows what else. All I wanted to do today was hide under my duvet and read Outlander (I’m re-reading Book 4 Drums of Autumn at the moment), while keeping my computer open next to me so I can pretend I’m actually working. Instead, no, I had panto tickets. Well, so be it. If nothing else, I could practice the old trick of clapping in my sleep and nodding appreciatively.

But instead I got what I didn’t know I had been waiting for all my life. Step-sisters in drag, played by the outstanding pair Kat B (Queenie) and Tony Whittle (Vic). A Prince Charming (Chris Jenkins) with the most sincerely ardent face since Simba met Nala and discovered he had balls. A rousing rendition of Rag-n’-Bone-Man’s Human by Cinderella’s father Baron Hard-up (Peter Straker.) And best of all a black Cinderella played by the glorious Aisha Jawando. Step aside Disney, you gave us a sumptuous visual landscape in your recent live-action version but not a smidgen of courage or originality. Do please take a few notes from Hackney Empire’s version written and directed by the wonderful Susie Mckenna (who also plays the boo-tilicious step-mother) and unleash the magic.

The cross-cultural romance was played just as it should be – without so much as the blink of an eyelid, like it is totally normal, like it is everywhere, like it doesn’t need explanation or melodrama, and like, grow up Hollywood film producers and stop living in a world that doesn’t exist. We live in a beautifully multicultural world – get over it.

There were nice little references to current affairs. The ugly step-sisters should be called Theresa and May, don’t you know, the queen seems to be hoarding millions in a tax haven in Bermuda, the step-mother (who hasn’t noticed that one of her children is white, the other black) is such an out and out bitch that she voted Leave, and the Prince’s man-servant is European, hence facing impending deportation. Throw in a bit of Strictly action at the ball by having a dance-off between Cinderella with the Prince, and the step-sisters with a dance partner filched from one of the guests. Make the step-mother, the baron and Buttons (Cinderlla’s BFF) step in as Craig Revel Horwood, Shirley Ballas and Bruno Tonioli. Add a few gags about how the Prince’s balls get bigger every year. And you have the whole caboodle.

I found myself grinning throughout, stopping only to spit out my M&Ms everywhere because I was guffawing so loud and to sway to various pop sensations – Adele’s To Make You Feel My Love when Cinderella and the Prince get together, Clean Bandit’s Symphony when they dance together at the ball, Katy Perry’s Chained to the Rhythm, and Queen’s Somebody to Love when the Prince is looking for love. The Prince meets Cinders at a political rally where she is protesting the local penchant for hunting and killing animals, and immediately falls in love with her. They have some (surprisingly) genuinely moving kissy-kissy hand-holdy moments in the woods later. Cinders has a soul-to-soul chat with her FG about how everyone thinks she’s too loud, to which the FG tells her to ignore people who think that “girls who speak their mind are uncouth.” (She’s an FG after my own heart.) There are various antics from Buttons, the step-sisters and the leopard-print wearing, Brexit-voting, boooo-tiful step-mother, and there you have it. Two hours twenty minutes of outstanding fun. If it had been twice as long, I would have happily sat there watching it and maniacally grinning.

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