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Review: Cinderella at the Epstein Theatre ***1/2

It’s billed as the greatest fairytale of them all, and it’s certainly a perennially popular festive choice.

So it may come as a surprise to learn the Epstein’s is the only Cinderella in town this season. Just one abandoned glass slipper, a single pair of ugly sisters, and a solitary pumpkin ready to be turned in to a glittering coach between here and New Year.

No pressure then – well, no more pressure than already exists in entertaining an Epstein panto crowd who have become used to some pretty edgy, near-the-knuckle festive fayre in recent years.

But with a change of management at the Hanover Street theatre comes a change of panto company, and Regal Entertainments – the team behind St Helens’ homegrown shows – has evidently brought a kinder, gentler politics, sorry, panto style to the stage.

For this opening show it’s also brought St Helens’ signature 3D segment, as well as the Theatre Royal’s regular cheekie chappie Lewis Devine whose Buttons is the tenacious engine room of the production. Devine is a relentless force of nature, whipping up the audience to boo, cheer, ahhh and applaud at his command.

The cast of Cinderella. Top: Sammy Winward. Photos by David Munn.

He’s also a panto partner-in-crime to Sammy Winward’s sweet natured, sweet-voiced (definitely a little bit country) Cinders who dreams that one day a handsome prince will come to save her from a life of drudgery at the hands of her evil sisters.

Emmerdale actress Winward may be making her panto debut, but she gives an assured performance and more than holds her own in the big numbers – and against Sarah White and Crissy Rock (rocking a disturbing Bette Davis/Baby Jane look) as her mean girl step-siblings.

There was a time when it was forbidden to portray a member of the royal family on stage, but this Christmas they definitely seem to be fair game. While other shows have inserted jokes about Woking’s Pizza Express among the topical gags, the Epstein has rather cruelly gone one further and named its Ugly Sisters Meghan and Kate.

Sammy Winward and Andrew Geater as Cinders and the Prince

While there some perky performances and enjoyable scenes – the tussle on a forest wall between Cinders, Buttons and Andrew Geater’s Prince is laugh-out-loud funny, other parts of the first half feel somewhat pale in comparison with the more colourful energetic song-and-dance driven action after the interval.

On press night this also wasn’t helped by persistent sound distortion which meant sections of dialogue were incomprehensible, made worse by some cast members delivering their lines at garbled, break-neck speed, together helping to create a frustratingly febrile atmosphere.

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