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Panto Review: Cinderella and the Beanstalk (Theatre503, London)

cinderella and the beanstalk Anarchy in panto-land. James James Dunnell-Smith (left), John Woodburn (centre) and Joshua George Smith (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Jack Sain.
cinderella and the beanstalk

Anarchy in panto-land. James James Dunnell-Smith (left), John Woodburn (centre) and Joshua George Smith (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Jack Sain.

In A Nutshell

Cinderella and the Beanstalk is panto that swings from the rafters. Original, completely bonkers, and frantic festive fun.

Overview

It’s panto time! The costumes are made, Theatre503 has been booked, but there’s one problem: no actors have been cast! Therefore it’s up to the Sleeping Trees to play all the characters in the panto splatterdash that is Cinderella and the Beanstalk in order not to disappoint all the little boys and girls in the audience (oh no, they won’t).

Writing

Comedy trio Sleeping Tress, consisting of James Dunnell-Smith, Joshua George Smith, and John Woodburn, are essentially three grown men who haven’t quite grown up. Whilst in most circumstances such a statement would be rather insincere, for the prospect of producing and proliferating a panto, it’s as nice a compliment you could offer. Right from the outset, you get the impression that Cinderella and the Beanstalk is going to be something a bit different and very, very silly, and Sleeping Trees certainly don’t disappoint. Cinderella and the Beanstalk is obviously a mash-up of what seems like two panto familiars, but Dunnell-Smith, George Smith and Woodburn don’t just limit it to those two. There’s a whole host of panto collisions and fusions, along with a Santa’s boot load of references from DIY song re-appropriations to 1990s nostalgia. Each infusion is a funny and frivolous surprise that catches you completely unawares. Everything is completely unexpected, nonsensical, and tremendously funny. Cinderella and the Beanstalk is closely akin to one of those made made-up-on-the-spot stories children tell from time to time: whiplashing from one narrative subject to the next with little or no relation to anything else. However, Sleeping Trees have the acumen to inject plenty of funny, and hold onto the reigns so it doesn’t go completely off the wacky rails, blending umpteen well-known narratives into a hilarious hybrid.

Cinderella and the Beanstalk

Cinderfella. James Dunnell-Smith as Cinderella in ‘Cinderella and the Beanstalk’. Photograph: Courtesy of Jack Sain.

Yet, the anarchic and wild imagination is also one of the few problems with Cinderella and the Beanstalk. For starters, there are moments, like with any high octane comedy, that do drag a bit as it revels for too long on one particular joke. Furthermore, Sleeping Trees sometimes forget that they aren’t children anymore, and some of the glorious references that strike a chortle from adults might be lost on kids, particularly things like Jurassic Park and Home Alone: things that existed long before the younger audience members were even born. You do wonder if Cinderella and the Beanstalk is more something for Sleeping Trees and their contemporaries rather than specifically aimed at children. When you start to think about it, you get the impression is that Cinderella and the Beanstalk is something that very much tries and wants to be something aimed a children, but instead ends up as something pitched at adults with some stuff that children just happen to love. Try as they might, Dunnell-Smith, George Smith, and Woodburn aren’t quite the knee-high rascals they used to be, therefore parts of Cinderella and the Beanstalk don’t quite as engage the young kiddies as much as the older.

Regardless, the kids still absolutely love the bonkers silliness of it all, whilst the adults lap up the referential humour and the general loopy surrealism of Cinderella and the Beanstalk. But what’s most interesting about Cinderella and the Beanstalk is that it’s probably the cleanest panto around. Whilst innuendo has always been a traditional trope of pantomime, Sleeping Trees have kept Cinderella and the Beanstalk very above board. If anything is risque, it’s more inappropriate than smutty. But, it far from means that the lack of underlying filth means that Cinderella and the Beanstalk is lacking in laughs. These come thick, fast, and completely out of left field. You couldn’t ask for a funnier, more mad-cap, and original panto this year.

cinderella and the beanstalk

Chained-up melody. John Woodburn (left), James Dunnell-Smith (centre) and Joshua George Smith (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Jack Sain.

Direction & Production

Returning to Theatre503 for a second year means that Sleeping Trees are able to have a bit more set-up time and production values than the sparse and resourceful style that they’re better known for. However, it doesn’t mean that this clutters Cinderella and the Beanstalk. Simon A Wells’ set of painted walls gives the show a definite panto look – colourful and cartoony – but really fills in the blanks rather than get in the way. Elsewhere, the crates of props and costumes are well utilised for comic pacing, invention, and surprises, with props and people popping in and out like nobody’s business. Mark Newnham also writes and supplies some great live music to Cinderella and the Beanstalk adding plenty of catchy toe-tapping moments.

Even though Cinderella and the Beanstalk does drag in some places, you get the impression that without director Tom Attenborough on board, the show might have gone off too much on tangents and chatter. Sleeping Trees are the accelerators whilst Attenborough is certainly the brakes, but that by no means stalls the comedy. If anything, you get the sense that Attenborough lets absolutely Dunnell-Smith, George Smith and Woodburn thrive, but fences things in a little and fine-tunes them to get the most out of this barmy barnstorm of a creation.

cinderella and the beanstalk

Charmed, I’m sure. Joshua George Smith (left) and Johnathan Woodburn (right). Photograph: Courteys of Jack Sain.

Cast

It’s really impossible to really consider Dunnell-Smith, George Smith and Woodburn as separate entities as they work so well and tight-knit as the team they are. Each play to their specific strengths and characteristics to the point where any character they’re given to play feels like second nature to them and almost intrinsically part of their very being, making them able to extract a canny sense of comedy from anything and anyone they do. They also exude a great sense of friendship which adds an extra fun buzz on top of the doolally frenzy they whip themselves into.

What’s pretty brilliant about all of them is their physicality. Each knows just how to expertly grimace, gurn, and contort themselves through the show for laughs. Even their voices, a plethora of off-kilter accents with on-point tonality, are malleable to the point of hysterics, especially Woodburn’s ugly sisters and George Smith’s Mr. Cow. You simply couldn’t ask for a more polished triumvirate of comic comrades to carry you side-splittingly through Cinderella and the Beanstalk.

Verdict

Expect the unexpected, Cinderella and the Beanstalk is not just off-the-wall but bounces off them with a joyous hyperactivity not seen since the days of blue Smarties.

Cinderella and the Beanstalk plays at Theatre503, London, SW11 3BW until 2 January 2016 . Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit https://theatre503.com.