Soho Cinders continues at the Union Theatre, London until 22 December.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
At the moment, this revival of Stiles and Drewe’s modern reworking of Cinderella with a rent boy in the Cinders role falling in love with a prospective London Mayor while a millionaire Tory lord of industry tries to buy him for himself isn’t four-star material.
But it’s the season of goodwill to all men, the songs are fabulous, the lad’s two disgustingly lowlife ugly sisters are so hilarious, and as the show finishes a lot better than it began on a nervy press night, it gets one of those stars for potential.
The choreography, by Joanne McShane, is outstanding (Chloe Polson Davies, in particular, is a terrific performer and dance captain Jade Bailey also has plenty going for her in a lively young ensemble) and there’s a month for director Will Keith to paper over some cracks elsewhere.
But this isn’t a show that should be relying on the dancing for the majority of its success: it is the exceptional songs (lyrics by Anthony Drewe, music by George Stiles) and topical story (Drewe and Elliot Davis) set in and around Soho’s gay community in Old Compton Street.
But is there something wrong with the acoustics at the new, much improved Union? Although I was only a few yards from the cast from my front row seat, funny lines got lost, actors sacrificed clarity for accent authenticity, and one of the best songs ‘Wishing For the Normal’, sung by rent boy Robbie (Josh Lewindon) and his cute pal Velcro (Emily Deamer), was all but wasted.
Even though Michaela Stern and Natalie Harman, as the garishly OTT ugly sisters, demonstrate a wide vocal range and great sense of comedy, they too lose some good lines in that star turn of a routine ‘I’m So Over Men’ by going too fast in thick accents. Their ‘Fifteen Minutes’ in Act II is better.
The balance between Sarah Morrison’s three-piece band and cast is also far from assured.
While wondering whether it was just me, my immediate neighbours confirmed they too had difficulty picking up many of the words. Lewindon was also too quiet early on, although he nailed his big solo ‘They Don’t Make Glass Slippers’ in an altogether more confident Act II.
Exempt from this criticism is Lewis Asquith as Lord Mayor candidate James Prince with a doting fiancée but a skeleton in the cupboard.
This was the role Michael Xavier played when Soho Cinders launched four years ago in its rightful Fringe environment, the Soho Theatre in Dean Street. It is a part made for Asquith who has the same languid charm as Xavier, a voice that never has to strain, and strong stage presence.
He and his lover Robbie have one of Stiles and Drewe’s best songs (‘Gypsies of the Ether’) to deliver and they make the very most of it, while his duet with Marilyn (Lowri Walton) is beautifully done.
As is Walton’s heart-rending ‘Let Him Go’ with Deamer’s Velcro advising her there can be no future with James as the show nears its climax with much happiness for some but a relationship in tatters for her.
As she knows all along about James’ ‘secret’, maybe poor, put-upon Marilyn, the cover for his sexual preferences, senses it is coming. At any rate, Walton can certainly sing.
Samuel Haughton looks uneasy to start with as James’ devious campaign manager, but does well in Act II with ‘The Tail That Wags the Dog’, while all Chris Coleman’s blandishments as millionaire Lord Bellingham fail to get Robbie into bed – or so he tells the man he truly loves.
Meg Matthews as Haughton’s assistant and ensemble members Oliver Bingham, Luke Byrne, Lance Collins, Charis Murray and Harry Wright complete a mixed bag of a cast, some of whom look as if they could have done with more rehearsal time.
But it’s such a watchable show nonetheless, reaching the very heart of this great city, and yet another triumph for the uber-skilled Stiles and Drewe whose Betty Blue Eyes could also do with a London revival. Did they ever write a bad tune?