Review of Middle Child's Pantomime, Cinderella at Fruit

20th December 2017 // Cultural // Local // Whats On

When I was in my early twenties, I used to delight in jumping queues at clubs like The Haçienda and Hard Times and proudly declaring ‘guest-list, mate.’ Fast forward 20+ years and, although it’s a freezing cold December evening, and it’s tempting, I hang around, gingerly at the back of the queue outside Früit, overthinking the horror of pushing in, in front of children, with my six-year-old daughter, worrying about what I’m going to say when I get to the door. Can’t say ‘guest-list, luv.’ It’s a panto, what on earth do you say without looking and sounding like a complete idiot?

When I get to the front, after letting about ten people go in front of me because I don’t want anyone to hear, I almost whisper, ‘er…I think Mark put me down.’ I know he did, I was sat next to him when he did it, but I don’t want to be that 21-year-old me, and I also don’t want to embarrass myself in front of my kid.

‘You mean the guest-list?’

I feel my face turn deep crimson.

I’m here to see Middle Child’s sixth annual ‘affordable, alternative panto,’ Cinderella, and man, what a spectacle. Beforehand, I think it’s quite a contrast to the previous night, which was pure, unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll in every sense as I watched three Paddingtons, and two No Nowts smash it as The Strokes in tribute of one of Hull’s true rock stars, Dave ‘Cardo’ Sinclair. But as it sinks in, the contrast isn’t so stark, as this isn’t your run-of-the-mill panto, this is rock ‘n’ roll panto, and I leave with the same feeling as the night before. Seeing my kid as boisterous as I was last night is deeply satisfying too and I get to watch it vicariously through her, then I just give in, joining in with the booing, the ‘she’s behind you’ and the ‘Buttons!’ screams when Cinders’ dress is in danger of being nicked by rats or villains. It’s raucous good fun.

I haven’t been to a panto since I was a child, when my mum ‘fixed it’ for me to go onstage at Hull New Theatre with some dummy with his hand up another dummy’s arse. I can’t remember exactly who it was but I’m drawn towards thinking it was Nookie The Bear or Lord Charles. The reason I’m not too clear is because I’ve blocked it out. PTSD because I weed myself onstage.

So this is my first panto since then.

We take our seats right down the front. I face my fears head-on. There’s a bar, but I don’t use it for booze. We don’t want a repeat performance of last time.

As the lights go down, there’s an audible gasp of expectancy and the Fairy Godmother takes the stage. She informs us that this is her last job, and she’s retiring to Spain to get leathered on Sangria. From the off, we’re in familiar territory, so I relax, and the pop-Culture references come thick and fast. On comes Buttons, given the task of looking after Cinders’ dead mum’s dress and making sure no one gets their grubby mitts on it. It’s placed stage left, and of course we have to shout for Buttons every time someone (or something) tries to nick it. It’s a great performance from Matthew May, as the loveable panto staple, and you just know it’s going to go tits-up despite his best efforts.

Next up we’re introduced to the two ugly sisters, ‘Booty and also Licious’ and they are absolutely outstanding. And terrifying at first, because they’re surveying the audience to pick on a guy to flirt with throughout the whole performance. I start to regret sitting on the front row and my heart sinks as they pick on various dads in the audience before finally settling on Dan who is sat directly behind me. Luckily I escape scrutiny, even though my daughter’s shouting ‘my daddy!’ I make a mental note of ‘no iPad for a week.’ Dan is picked on and flirted with throughout. It’s all good-natured, but when they finally get rejected by Prince Charming, they come offstage, and drape themselves all over him, kissing him and farting on him. It’s hilarious. Because it isn’t happening to me. So close though. They’re literally inches away from me.

Cinders and Charming are brilliant as the star-crossed lovers, Josh Meredith and Emma Bright getting it just right as the innocent, bashful couple. Charming comes centre-stage from behind a drum kit, where he’s also been playing guitar. The Fairy Godmother, played by Josie Morley, takes his place and straps on a bass guitar when he’s onstage, and assisted by Piano Dave, they all provide the soundtrack. It’s a full-on multi-talented masterclass as the small-ish cast turn their hands to everything. It seems bigger than it actually is, as everyone mucks in, and cast is also band and stage crew, and it flows seamlessly.

My heart sinks again as the real villain takes the stage. The evil stepmother, Madam Woo is quite brilliant, Alice Beaumont really playing up to the encouraged boos, hisses and cries of ‘witch!’ As soon as she appears, she starts insulting audience members. ‘You’re a ugly bunch, aren’t you? Look at you, your face looks like a fungal infection.’ It’s brutally hilarious. Thankfully, I escape again, but it would be a fleeting humiliation, as she moves onto her next targets with quick-fire barbs. She’s deliciously nasty, and her voice is twisted into a comically evil screech, as she laps up the boos. ‘I live for boos, come on!’ I hear ‘I live for booze,’ which is clearly intentional. It’s the family version, but there are plenty of references for the mums and dads without venturing into the smutty, tacky double-entendre world of the traditional one across town.

All in all, it’s a faithful adaptation of the classic fairytale, with a Middle Child twist. Tom Wells’ script is excellent as are the self-penned songs that sit alongside more well-known numbers. Some, more current ones I kind of recognise, but my kid’s belting her lungs out to them, so they’re well-chosen for today’s audience. They rub shoulders with more seasoned singalongs; the deranged Total Eclipse of the Heart and joyous Buttons-led (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher being particular highlights.

There’s a young lad in the front row who gets into a hilarious running battle with the ugly sisters. Marc Graham, at one point, copping one in the face. It’s a playful slap, and it’s brilliantly dealt with. It’s too perfect, you think it’s a plant, but it’s so persistent and hilarious, forcing the actors to constantly ad-lib their way through the exchanges, that it soon becomes clear that it’s real. It probably distracts from any opening-night nerves; the kid’s got a great potential future as a pantomime villain ahead of him.

Everyone involved is outstanding, and every performer is perfectly suited to their roles, but it’s panto, isn’t it, and we’re here for the comedy and the audience-villain interaction. Booty and Licious, played by Marc Graham and James Stanyer respectively are relentlessly manic and hysterical and somehow manage to avoid the stereotypical panto-dame clichés. Poor Dan, behind me, barely gets a minute’s peace. Alice Beaumont too is so riotously wicked, really vamping it up, eliciting the boos and hisses brilliantly. Full marks too for Andrew Ross, the guy in the mouse costume, who deadpans his way through the whole performance, looking thoroughly pissed-off to be there. He’s like a souped-up Jack Dee, as he clears up the gunk from the peerless mess scene, doubles up as stage manager, and is generally responsible for what you’d associate with Cinders’ chores. Cleaning shit up.

There’s a lovely touch when a Hull City of Culture volunteer is invited onstage to introduce a fantastic montage of some of the highlights of our year in the spotlight. Joshua Meredith taking us through the highlights, armed with an ‘Allams Out’ protest placard which draws huge applause. Prince Charming clearly relishes wearing a Hubbards t-shirt, whilst Booty and Licious namecheck frontman Reuben with lusty tones. It’s a befitting look back on the year.

There’s one final dread-inducing moment when Booty and Licious have a sing-off with their respective halves of the audience. It’s Caravan of Love, and they ask all the dads to remain standing for the ‘hunkiest voice contest.’ Thankfully, and obviously, it’s Dan who has to go onstage, don a blonde singing wig and croon his way through the Isley Brothers/Housemartins classic. My jeans remain dry, thank the Lord.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never attended any Middle Child performances until now, but will be awaiting all future productions with eagerness, it was truly fantastic. Two hours fly by, and the taxi calls me literally the minute it finishes. I feel like sticking around a bit. I’ve enjoyed it that much. The cast also look to be having a riot up there too and it’s infectious.

It’s alternative in that it’s a low-budget, high-octane romp through the genre without caving in to tacky convention. It’s peppered with hip, cultural references indicating it knows its audience may be of a more esoteric disposition, whilst also giving the kids something to love and sending them singing the songs into the night. A tricky line to straddle, but it’s done so with ease. A quick scan (stalk) through the bios on the Middle Child website reveals members with impeccable music, film and reading taste too, so that gains more indie points from me.

Highly recommended. You’ll pee yourself laughing. And this is from someone who is scarred by a literally pant-wetting pantomime experience. I’m over it. You should be all over this too.

You can book tickets for this event HERE