The Song Remains The Same
Theatrical interrogations of fairytales have become somewhat fashionable recently. In many cases, the writer is often looking to reclaim the centuries old tales from their Disney styled portrayals. Tales whose blood, sex, and violence have become sanitised, replaced by a dishonest cartoonish cuteness in which everyone lives happily ever after and no-one ever really gets hurt. If distance from Disney is the name of the game, “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” by Katie McCann, has opted to go in the opposite direction. For McCann’s retelling sees the song remain the same, offering pure, unadulterated, designer Disney, via a sanitised re-imagining of the Grimm Brothers version of Cinderella. A 21st century Disney to be sure, with the heroine not needing a Prince to save her anymore, and the geek guy getting the gorgeous girl. All wrapped up with an ET styled, Hallmark card, simplistic sentimentality. A moral and theme so digestibly sweet, even the young will swallow it without needing a spoonful of sugar. Be brave and be kind. Alas, it would have been kinder had McCann been braver. Not Disney enough to be Disney, nor interrogating enough to have a substance of its own, a self-conscious cleverness often trips up its own humour in “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella.” Even if, theatrically, it tells its tale incredibly well. Wonderfully designed, brilliantly performed, superbly directed, this uneven pantomime delivers moments of utter hilarity. Courtesy of a magnificent seven riding to its rescue, in the guise of six outstanding performers and one impressively promising director.
In McCann’s revised version, Ella, all brave and kind and loving, whose Father remarries after her Mothers death, grieves as Daddy departs to increase the blended family’s fortune. But oil and water don’t mix, and new Stepmother, Margaretta, a devious demon dripping with venom, along with her two daughters, the deliciously vicious Gabrielle, and the delightfully vacuous girl-with-a-conscience, Brigit, take command of the household. Firing the elderly servant Otto, they ensure Ella of the cinders waits on them hand and foot. A chance rescue of Prince Albert’s PR man, Kit, sees Ella begin to fall for the hapless manservant, who’s tasked with inviting every eligible woman in the kingdom to a royal ball at which the foppish Prince will choose his bride. One wish at a wishing tree, and one magic outfit later, sees kisses finally shared and slippers lost as secrets are revealed from behind the branches. Whatever the outcome, you can be pretty certain it will all end happily ever after. Even with a surprise ending so obvious from the outset that it comes as no surprise at all.
While McCann has shown with her excellent Cirque De Rêve just how good she can be, with “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” she falls short of her own impeccable standards. “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” might want to aim at pantomime for both adults and children, but its not clever enough for the former and far too clever for the latter. Constantly mocking impracticalities like glass slippers, meeting every woman in the kingdom, or marrying a man you just met, “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” relies too heavily on a tongue in cheek, self knowing superiority. One built on taking clichéd, 21st century deconstructions and projecting them onto the original tale. Yet it’s a device worn threadbare all too quickly. Steeped in too many contemporary references to things like speed dating and approval ratings, its modern, self-knowing pokes are delivered with too little charm, too much repetition, and offer too few insights. Interrupting its humour as much as informing it, they result in laughter becoming far too sporadic, with lulls and lapses lingering frequently between the laughs.
This overworked device is compounded by McCann’s hit and miss use of poetic language. Often dealing in weak rhymes and uneven rhythms, its couplets rarely rise above a halfhearted greeting on a Hallmark card. If “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” entertains a damp smear of blood and a severed toe, it’s cartoon violence acceptable to a modern audience. Remembering that the Grimm’s original version used doves to exact revenge by pecking out the eyes of the sisters. With not a dove in sight, McCann dishes out forgiveness with huge dollops of Disney grade, politically correct sentimentality, ensuring everyone’s a winner and lives happily ever after. In the end, McCann’s pantomime simply replaces Disney’s sanitised morality of the 1950’s with the newer, Disney frame. One in which the Grimm's original tale is once again sanitised, but gaining little of Disney’s charm in the process.
All of which polarizes “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella,” for alongside its deconstructed debris McCann delivers some wonderfully hilarious comic moments, especially concerning theatre. When these sporadic moments arrive, their success is due in no small measure to six outstanding performers, whose physically rich performances inform, and go beyond, the text. A text that shows McCann at her hilarious and engaging best when dealing in characters, their stories, and their foibles. A brilliant Ashleigh Dorrell makes Brigit a sheer delight, as is Aisling O’Mara’s malignant Gabrielle. Camille Lucy Ross’s malicious Margaretta, and world weary Queen, are incredibly compelling. Danielle Galligan as the heroine Ella and the exaggerated witch, looking the quintessential Disney heroine, is utterly captivating. Finbarr Doyle as the Prince, Father, and Wilheim Grimm is simply outstanding. As is a scene stealing Fionn Foley as Otto, Kit, and Jacob Grimm, crafting a performance where his physical presence alone becomes enough to bring the house down with laughter. Indeed, “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” confirms both Doyle and Foley as two of the best, and most versatile, character actors around. And director, Jeda de Brí, as a director to watch. Leaving not an ounce of fat on the stage, de Brí's meticulous attention to detail ensures her cast are always informing the central action, even if its with a half seen gesture on the periphery of vision. Ger Clancy’s clever set design, Jack Cawley’s light design, Osgar Dukes sound design, and Nicola Burke’s exquisite costumes, weave a rich tapestry which de Brí and her cast exploit beautifully, with a little narrative assistance from the excellent Olwen Fouéré. Together cast, design team, and director elevate “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” into something richly theatrically and often extremely enjoyable.
“The Grimm Tale of Cinderella's” overt cleverness can makes its two hour running time feel long in places, with too many lulls between the laughs. A needle returning to the start of an all too familiar song, its too self conspicuous decoding of the tale merely recodes it in yet another Disney-like frame. One not as charming as Disney, but one that is still theatrically good to look at, with six incredible performances striking rich veins of hilarity at times. Indeed, “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” could be something really special, if only it could rescue itself from the clutches of its own cleverness. For once it gets out of its own way and on with the task of telling its pantomime story, letting its cartoonish characters blossom and it themes emerge from the action, McCann's “The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” sparkles with humour and even a little bit of magic on occasion.
“The Grimm Tale of Cinderella” by Katie McCann, presented by Smock Alley Theatre, runs at Smock Alley Theatre until December 23rd
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