The Grimm Tale of Cinderella – Smock Alley Theatre – Review by Keith Thompson
Main Space – 5-23rd Dec
Ella (Danielle Galligan), is the caring daughter of Henrik (Finbarr Doyle), intent on fulfilling her dead mother’s exhortation to be both kind and brave. Her strength is tested to breaking point however, when her father remarries and brings his new bride Margaretta (Camille Lucy Ross), and her two spoilt daughters (Ashleigh Dorrell and Aisling O’Mara) into their home.
Forced into relentless slave labour by these vain and capricious new arrivals, Ella resorts to sleeping by the fire in the kitchen and so, getting covered in ash, earns her new name ‘Cinder’-ella. One day, in the midst of this drudgery – whilst visiting her mother’s grave – she is happened upon by the Crown Prince’s faithful yet overlooked assistant, simply named Kit (Fionn Foley). This awkwardly charming clerk invites her to the ball his master is holding in the hope of finding a bride. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or rather in this case, folklore.
The Cinderella tale; the story of a virtuous and kind young woman elevated to regal status by a fortuitous shoe-related marriage, has been told since time immemorial: from ancient Egypt and China to seventeenth-century Italy, and later most famously in the Grimm brothers’ collection of folk-tales, and of course the obligatory Disney movie. Essentially though, the story changes for each generation and society that hears it and in this retelling, Katie McCann has created a story both thoroughly modern, and thoroughly heart-warming.
Let’s start by addressing the title. McCann has dubbed this ‘The Grimm Tale of Cinderella’. And she has clearly stuck to the version produced by the German brothers. There isn’t a fairy godmother or a pumpkin carriage in sight, and back come the more traditional, darker elements, such as the wishing tree on Cinderella’s mother’s grave and the violent mutilation of the step-sisters’ feet to fit into the slipper. Yet the pun on ‘grim’ is not quite followed through. The play is unashamedly light, and suffers from there being no real danger or, despite Ross’s Machiavellian turn as the step-mother, no substantial villain. Even the aforementioned chopping off of toes is portrayed in an irreverently humorous light, Ross producing a malevolent-looking cleaver from nowhere, before the toe bounces across the floor.
Other innovations work well. The romance in the play goes somewhat against the grain, and is suitably modern. There are numerous contemporary references, one in particular about ‘fat-shaming’ drawing large guffaws from the audience, and the relationships between the characters feel both real and recognisable.
Director Jeda de Bri launches the play at a furious clip, and the pace rarely flags throughout. Punchlines are spewed out almost remorselessly and she prises every last gag out of McCann’s script. In achieving this she is ably abetted by a charming ensemble, who clearly take to their roles with relish. Finbarr Doyle’s caddish Crown Prince flounces back and forth from a debauched lout to a defenceless kitten and his dour Wilhelm Grimm is a buttoned-up pedant who, for all his misanthropy, provides us with some of the biggest laughs. Ashleigh Dorrell’s perfectly pitched Brigit (pronounced Brig-it, not Bridg-et) hides a sweet heart under a doltish exterior and Danielle Galligan’s Ella is a suitably savvy, reserved modern heroine. The stand-out performances however, both come from Camille Lucy Ross as the vampish Margaretta and the weary, browbeaten Queen.
Visually the performances are superbly complemented by Nicola Burke’s joyously shabby, carnivalesque costumes and Ger Clancy’s set which cleverly makes use of this difficult stage by consuming much of it within the wishing-tree centrepiece.
Smock Alley have, for a few years now, been attempting to corner the market in an alternative Christmas family show, mostly with mixed results. This current production ticks all the right boxes in terms of humour and performance, but ultimately it does feel that something is lacking, and that something is real and present danger. The folk-tales collected by the Grimm brothers had been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. They were the original form of moral and civic education, teaching children to be steadfast and brave, and most importantly kind, but they were not sugar-coated. The dangers the heroes faced were real and difficult to surmount. Good people were killed, subjected to penury, wrongfully imprisoned or banished from home. I often wonder what service we do our children by seeking to protect them from this darkness. Whilst it is refreshing to see a fairytale that goes against the syrupy Disney narrative, I cannot help but feel that when faced with real darkness, Ella’s bravery and kindness would only shine out all the clearer.