There is nothing like a Dame. Except, of course, when there are two Dames.

This year’s pantomime by eight-freestyle at Manchester’s Contact, taking more than a few liberties with Cinderella, boasts a particularly fine pair in larger-than-life and twice-as-ugly sisters Veruca and Hernia, ‘identical’ twins gleefully fleshed out by drag artists, Lady Bushra and Misty Chance. Introducing themselves, they shamelessly describe their appearances as “like looking in a sexy mirror”. In a range of outlandish frocks, they certainly evince the playful comic rapport of a more established comedy double act.

Chance’s Hernia has more than a touch of Dead or Alive‘s much-missed Pete Burns, already a star in his pre-fame days while deployed behind the counter of Liverpool’s Probe Records, scorning customers for failing to live up to his impeccable standards of grooming and taste. Drawing deep from their respective wells of club experience, they revel in goading the audience with a similar brand of camped-up villainy, sneering at their jeering (“Call that booing?”).

Cinderella. Photo by Shay Rowan.

Grand larcenists of laughter, that the ad-libbing Bushra and Chance don’t quite succeed in stealing the show says something about the quality of the cast supporting them. Kate Mitchell tiptoes through her sugarplum role of a fairy in search of her wings with a twinkle to the kids and a wink to the grown-ups, while Ella-Marie Danson’s Dandini threatens to out-charm the Prince with her thigh-slapping vivacity.

Pantomime is traditional in the best sense – an open house that, like the regenerations of a Time Lord, makes itself anew with each iteration. Under the direction of Sean Canning, the ashes of Cinderella’s hearth are rekindled by a topical subplot pivoting around Steven Jackson’s Lord Stoneybroke, Cinderella’s inventor father, owing a dramatic debt to Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and, within the panto, a more pressing one to the payday loans company whose dubious services have been necessitated by Hernia and Veruca’s spendthrift addiction to fast fashion. 

Nor are Cinderella’s aspirations limited to trading the strings of her apron for the rings of marriage. From the off, Rebecca Crookson’s plucky scullery maid has ambitions which are more terpsichorean than matrimonial.

Along the way, the drama passes some familiar signposts: mistaken identities as the Prince and Dandini exchange places, paving the way for farcical confusion, a particularly tenuous pretext to set the ghoulish scene for a bout of “He’s behind you!”, and a sprinkle of song-and-dance numbers with an ear for cross-generational pop, culminating in a nod to Strictly Ballroom and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion in its choice of the soundtrack to the Prince and Cinderella’s courtship dance.

Cinderella. Photo by Shay Rowan.

To keep things moving, the writers have come up with a fresh batch of puns, the most glorious of which, notably an especially filthy double entendre exploiting the perils of rash depilation, fly mercifully into the stratosphere above the understanding of the younger members of the audience, and, I suspect, that of  the more junior members of the Contact Young Company. The very youngest among their number are bright as buttons with the giddiness of being on stage, and their fledgling enthusiasm, generously shepherded by the professionals among the cast, is an integral part of the production’s broad appeal.

Indeed, like a ticket to Prince Charming’s Ball, Cinderella is an invitation to one and all, young and not-so-young, middle-of-the-road and avant-garde. This is theatre at its most inclusive. Put on your glass shoes and dance.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image by Shay Rowan

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Cinderella is at Contact in Manchester until December 31, 2023. For more information, click here.