The Old Vic theatre’s latest production, a new version of Cinderella, by actor, TV presenter, director, novelist and national treasure Stephen Fry, has received a muted response from the critics.
Writing in The Guardian, Michael Billington called his script “smart, knowing, self-referential and layered with innuendo.
“Fortunately it has just enough of the traditional ingredients to keep young audiences happy, though at times it’s a close thing.
“Fry’s revisionist approach is evident from the first when we see a lightly moustachioed, pipe-smoking Sandi Toksvig sitting aloft in a club room chair.
“Acting as narrator, she sets the archly camp tone by looking down on Buttons and crying: “Hello, pert young man, what’s your name?”
“Clearly this is no ordinary Buttons since, when Cinders asks if one can be too good, he replies: “According to Plato, happiness is contingent on virtue.”
“And when Cinders launches into a song about her ideal lover who is big, strong and manly, it is clear that Buttons shares exactly the same dream.”
While Billington was not concerned with the effect of the performance on children, his counterpart in the Daily Mail was outraged:
“The show is about 20 per cent too smutty and ironic for young children. Gay sex jokes, in particular, are rather tiresomely overdone.
“Director Fiona Laird should have taken Mr Fry’s exuberant script and done some sympathetic snipping. Then she might have had a classic on her hands.”
Many others criticised the writing, expecting something more from Britain’s brainiest celebrity.
“I got the impression Fry wasn’t so much creating a script as phoning in additional material and gags,” said Neil Norman in the Daily Express.
“Pantomimes are invariably vulgar but ratcheting up the vulgarity in a bid to bring them kicking and screaming into the 21st century strikes me as ill-considered.”
Paul Taylor of The Independent was equally miserly in his comments:
“His script, premiered in Fiona Laird’s garish, unsympathetic production, is a non-stop smut factory.
“Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that Buttons and Dandini get it together and I quite liked the shower scene involving Joseph Simmons’ heart-throb hunk of a Prince.
“But there’s a difference between good, clean, relevant filth (as when Mark Lockyer’s Ugly Sister compliments the Prince on the way he hold his balls) and relentless, gratingly contrived gags about, say, vibrators and dildos (the Stepmother is “left to her own devices…”).
“Even Madeleine Worrall’s likeable, throaty Cinders is shown waking up from a couple of erotic dreams with heavily engineered puns on her lips.
“The Ugly Sisters (called Dolce and Gabbana – why not Trinny and Susannah, same rhymes?) are too lewd to be amusing; the songs and choreography are frighteningly feeble.”
Others were equally unimpressed.
In The Times Benedict Nightingale also expected more from the nation’s most-loved intellectual.
“The result is clever going on clever-clever and, at times, venturing perilously near clever-clever-clever. Often one feels that Fry sending up pantos, rather than giving us a panto.”
Nicholas De Jongh, in the Evening Standard, was even more forthright.
“Stephen Fry and wit are supposed to be long-term companions,” he wrote.
“But it now looks and sounds as if they are undergoing a trial separation, with Fry the bereft party.”
De Jongh, unlike his colleague at the Mail, thought that children might enjoy it.
“The intermittent virtues of Fiona Laird’s slick production have to do with its appeal to kids, clever audience involvement and the odd, surprising flash of spectacle.”
Finally, the whole thing was all a bit too gay for Charles Spencer, who wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
“There are many moments when the show seems less like family entertainment than the filthiest gay cabaret in town.
“I can just about cope with Buttons coming out as gay and falling for Dandini, also played by a male actor, and, of course, slightly risqué jokes have always been a part of panto.
“They go over the heads of the young children in the audience.
“Fry’s script, however, frequently seems like a homosexual version of the sexed-up Sinderella which Jim Davidson brought to the West End a few years ago and which was honestly billed as being for over-18s only.
“The Old Vic, in contrast, is marketing as family entertainment a show that plays on the similarity between the words “her highness” and “her anus.” There is much more in a similar vein.
“You may, like the Old Vic’s artistic director Kevin Spacey, describe such puns as ‘a perfect celebration of the Old Vic’s vaudeville history and a great deal of fun.’
“Or you might call it distasteful smut that has no place at all in a show in which young children will form a large part of the audience.”
For information on the Old Vic production of Cinderella click here.