Date 31st January 2022
Society New Mills Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society
Venue Art Theatre
Type of Production Pantomime
Director Rob Brittles
Musical Director Claire Sweeney
Choreographer Cathryn Yates


Author: Kevin Proctor

New Mills AODS with the Art Theatre regularly opt for an ever-so-slightly off-piste title, ones that would be scarcely attempted on one of the nation’s big city stages during the festive season, but this year - for their post COVID return - Cinderella is the panto of choice in New Mills, a firm and much cherished staple of the genre, despite Cinderella being one on its own with how it doesn’t adhere to so many of pantos most recognisable customs. Many say that Cinderella is the nations most popular pantomime and I’d probably be inclined to agree.

But things don’t remain in the norm once the curtains part. In panto you can do - pretty much – anything! It’s not particularly usual for a Cinderella pantomime to feature a comedy bob the builder inspired duo or a tap-dancing horse, but the audience went along for the ride and lapped up every moment.

The wardrobe department along with hired cloths and scenery items collectively gave terrific support to the overall presentation, all in accordance for a traditional finish which one would expect. Each piece of garb and backcloth was as pleasing on the eye as the next, terrifically complementing the action and chosen style. Despite being a few weeks after, the glow and ambiance of Christmas was still very much alive which is perfect to add a bit of sparkle to a drab January evening. I can’t swerve mentioning how much I find Alan P Frayn’s scripts a tad lacking – dare I say – they’re not as sprightly as others that are readily available, they feel rather stuffy and the jokes are few and far between, and rarely funny! The struggle to find the perfect panto script can be exasperating with the sheer degree that’re at hand, the annual task of deciding which script to opt for is far from a easy and can quickly leave oneself drowning in a swamp of scripts – all baring the same title. But after seeing quite a few of them, I’m yet to see what the allure is with Mr Frayn’s versions. For me, the factor that played the largest part in holding this production back was the material. It may be an idea to settle on the panto title for the next season, get perusals of say 3 (?) different versions of it from different authors (all which tick the correct boxes in terms of technicalities, cast size etc) then dedicate a night to each script where they’re read aloud by some of the acting members? This also offers a great social event/gathering as well as doing some essential research. Once all scripts have been read, cast a vote for the favourite? It can be an inclusive and fun process to choose the right script, there are SO many out there! Yes – there’s a lot of dross, I know only too well!!! …but there are lots of modern and exciting gems too which, if the Art Theatre got a hold of them, I believe would propel their panto offerings to a whole new level!        

Mhairi Jennings as Fairy G, a hip and funky guardian of Cinderella, delivered a stout performance with crystal clear articulation, a lively and comic physical characterisation with energy to match while still ensuring we got a degree of grandeur as the immortal spirit of the tale.  Seb Green as Buttons was exceedingly likable with a cheeky chappie persona and had us on his side from the top, terrific performance. Lisa Quinn gave us a virtuous turn as Prince Charming, she absolutely suits this historic style of principal boy presentation. Vocally, I believe songs could’ve been chosen to suit her with more effective results but factoring in every angle of her performance, the end overall result was a potent one. I wholly appreciate that casting a female in the principal boy role offers an extra character for a young woman to play (of which there are always more women to choose from in the field of amateur theatre) yes, females playing the lead male role in a panto is a traditional feature – some would say outdated – I think the time is upon us to be asking why we’re still doing this, especially when taking into account the reasons behind why it was originally done this way in the first place. I’m all for gender switching, especially in panto, but isn’t it ignorant to carry on doing so without actually understanding why you’re doing it? Saying “Because that’s how we’ve always done it” isn’t a strong enough justification. Huge changes are happening in the world of professional panto, particularly with how they’re cast, female actors playing the principal boy was ditched decades ago, and with good reason!

Referring again to existing and recent professional pantos across the country, from which we ought to be inspired or keeping an eye on at the very least, it’s becoming more common to see female identifying actors in the roles of the ugly sisters, to which many cry “outrageous!”, I’m on the fence with it as I’ve seen it work exceptionally well but have also seen it as a drawback. One aspect I’ve favoured with females playing the ugly sisters was how it offered scope for Baron Hardup to be replaced with a traditional Dame which appeals to many companies and groups who desire a returning actor to play their Dame each season. With this production we got one of each, Stewart and Natalie Bowden gave us their double act as Gertrude and Grizelda Hardup, they were a riot and clearly had heaps of fun. They were physical, comically hideous and relished their moments to pleasing results. Having one female and one male actor playing the uglies is a new concept to me but one that wasn’t as much of a deterrent as anticipated, it’s not something that I’d imagine being my preference, but surprisingly, it worked! Cinderella isn’t known for having a villain as such, although the sisters are always unpleasant, spiteful and naughty – they’re not (or shouldn’t be) pure evil. To make room for a bona fide villain, Cinderella will often feature a Baroness… here we had Beverley Eaves as the wicked step mother, I must add that I believe this to be a fault of the material, the evil traits were not a prominent feature of the character which was a tremendous shame, I’m certain Beverley would have relished in delivering some proper wicked spiel in true pantomime form but unfortunately, the script didn’t really give any but Beverley showed mounds of promise but was unfortunately held back.

The afore mentioned bob the builder inspired double act – aptly named Bodget and Leggett – were played by Isabel Fletcher-Shaw and Alfie Hall. It’s a bold move to rest such responsibility on two so young but I also respect the brash choice to chuck them in at the deep end and see how they fair, it’s often the best way. Granted, they had moments of success but also moments that sank in equal measure, more time to nurture comedy – particularly as a double act – would have been an advantage but perhaps they were a tad inexperienced to understand the complex rules of comedy and how to read an audience as well as their counterpart, it’s not an easy skill by any means. We have two incredibly gifted youngsters here who evidently bring wonderful attributes to the company but in a show where there’s already an enormous lofty comedy duo (the sisters), I believe any two – regardless of their knack – would have been in the uglies shadows from the off.  Alice Bowdon was a joy to behold in the titular role lighting up the stage, her scenes with Buttons were delightful and remained equally as gracious and poised whilst being taunted by her step sisters, terrifically done.

The Art Theatre is the feather of the cap of this Derbyshire town, it’s such an adorable venue and it was fabulous to see it graced with a packed house as the first post COVID production which shows such assurance for a successful future, tremendous!