For decades, the Theatre Royal panto has been a York institution. Under former writer and long-running dame Berwick Kaler, the theatre’s annual festive offering – with its loyal team, its much-loved chaos and its familiar slate of gags – had almost cult status. But this year it’s all change.
Minus Kaler and co, this Cinderella is less eccentric but more reliable. With writer and producer Paul Hendy at the helm, it’s out with the in-jokes and in with the puns. Lots of puns. The best comedy comes from deliciously cruel step-sisters Manky (Robin Simpson) and Mardy (Paul Hawkyard), decked out in a series of wonderfully ridiculous costumes, and from Max Fulham’s show-stealing Buttons, who even manages to make a bizarre routine with a bin hilarious.
There’s spectacle as well as silliness, especially in the conclusion of the first act, which sends Cinderella (a charming Faye Campbell) to the ball in dazzling style. Later, a pair of aerialists twist and turn above the stage during the central romantic duet. The gasp-inducing routine is impressive, but it sucks all the attention from the scene, leaving poor Cinders and her prince stranded at the side of the stage as they gamely sing on.
At times, the show tries to have its cake and eat it. It signals that it’s moving with the times (the opening “boys and girls” becomes a long list of different family configurations and gender identities), while nostalgically talking about when things were simpler. But it’s at its best when delivering classic panto fare, from chirpy song and dance to “it’s behind you” gags. After the disruption of Covid – references to which Hendy wisely minimises – this Cinderella is an entertaining escape.
Cinderella is at York Theatre Royal until 2 January.