Theatre Review: Cinderella – Screening With Laughter, Or Returning To Farce The Music

November 10, 2021

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Cinderella / Directed by Janice Honeyman / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg


Delayed for a year because of the pandemic, the return of producer Bernard Jay and director Janice Honeyman’s (once – and hopefully again) annual pantomime meant not only a major theatrical event in an artistic landscape that’s been sadly barren for a while but also the revival of the family tradition part of the event, which is so important in terms of giving children their first theatrical experience.

Some of the usual paraphernalia – balloons dropping from the roof; chocolates and sweets being tossed out into the audience – are still on hold for now given sanitisation regulations, but there is a new facet to this production that immediately heightens its impact and encourages audience engagement.

Instead of the usual sets and huge props (there are still cars and scooters and wagons, mind), the bulk of the colour, scale and detail on stage is provided by a large number of high-definition LED screens, allowing for a village scene to change immediately and convincingly into a forest or a crumbling mansion or a glistening mansion. Such effects and ideas have been used before on this stage, but the resolution of the images before was never as crisp and realistic, with that progress only being part of a curve towards a new goal. That goal – or something close to it – may now have been reached, with the photo-realistic digital backgrounds being both brighter in colour and adding more credence to whatever scenario is being suggested. Not that a talking donkey’s stable needs to be particularly realistic, necessarily – in a pantomime, broad strokes would still have sufficed – but the leap forward in terms of creating a new and believable onstage world is fascinating. And when Cinderella (Kiruna-Lind Devar) needs to transform from a maid to a princess, utilising the entire stage to make that happen is far more spectacular than just having her wander behind a screen for a quick change.

This year’s cast is strong, with veterans of major musicals mixing with fresh drama school graduates in the ensemble and the leads including stars of both stage and screen. Devar, with her training and talent as a dancer complementing fine acting and a clear singing voice with a gentle vibrato, is a living representation of a Disney-style princess, and Kyle Grant is similarly well-suited to the Prince Charming archetype, all chiselled features, expressive eyebrows and blonde ‘do. Plus a great pop voice for the musical interludes.

Dolly Louw, Bongi Mthombeni (poignancy amidst the farce), Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri and Justin Swart (the last having to deal with the added challenge of a donkey onesie, including stilts for his front legs) all add charm and energy and the experience of Graham Hopkins and Desmond Dube helps them bring great timing to their roles. Ben Voss, previously a show-stealer as the Evil Queen in 2018’s Snow White, pulls off the same trick, somehow being 10 or 15% more manic than anyone he shares a scene with and letting his height and the over-the-top make-up and costumes do the rest.

The soundtrack and the associated choreography are excellent. The barrage of quick-fire cultural references requires some interpretation, though, with the burgeoning popularity of TikTok probably responsible for a number of phrases older audience members won’t initially understand and the more adult gags carefully worded to go over the head of the kids in the theatre. Still, the tested and refined formula of classical fairytale plus Honeyman’s writing and directing nous mans that understanding what is happening or how the characters are or should be interacting is never a problem. And the inclusion in songs at the beginning and end of the show of lyrics highlighting the importance of the return of the panto – theatre celebrating theatre – is an affecting marker of how important the art form is in bringing people together and making them laugh.

A roomful of joy, courtesy of storytelling, comedy and music.

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