Once upon a time there was a very good theatre director called Sarah Punshon who got a job as artistic director at the Dukes Playhouse in Lancaster where she did some excellent work including a wonderful summer show in Williamson Park loosely based on The Three Musketeers and a Peter Pan for Christmas that was the best thing I saw last year.

And then, as happens so often in many underfunded arts organisations, the wicked witch Financial Crisis knocked on the door and Punshon had to be let go. But, as in all the best fairy tales, there’s a happy ending. She’s back visiting, and on top form.

This is Sally Cookson’s version of Cinders, devised, like all her work, with the cast, and it’s a delight. It’s hard to tell where Cookson ends and Punshon begins, their styles are so similar, although I think Punshon has the political edge. And her casting is perfect. Punshon has managed to secure the services of Michael Hugo, who plays Cinders’ dad and, in a blood-chilling transformation, her wicked stepmother. Hugo is a notorious genius in Northern theatrical circles. I say notorious because there’s an element of danger in everything he does. I once sat in the front row at Around The World In 80 Days in which he played Passepartout. He was by turns hilarious and, for the front row, terrifying. You never knew what he was going to do next. Here, he is a joy.

Helen Longworth gives her Ugly Sister and the Queen – Netflix missed out there – with the energy and style we have come to expect. She was a great, and I mean great, Long John Silver last year and it is a pleasure to see her again. Craig Anderson is what one can only call an Ugly Brother, whose voyage of self-discovery is remarkably psychological – for a panto – and he makes it utterly believable. Waleed Hammond is the gauche, bird-watching Prince, ultimately transformed by love into a proper Prince Charming. Cinders herself, Riana Duce, is gorgeous in every way. And they can all sing. The songs are modern and jolly, and fill the space with atmosphere and fun. 

As for the space itself, designer Katie Scott has recycled her design from last year, a large wooden box structure with built-in surprises. It works perfectly. Scott may have hit on something here. This is a warm, intimate, in-the-round theatre space, one of the best in the North, and Scott’s Box, as it will no doubt be called in years to come, could be used for almost everything from The Crucible to Waiting for Godot. That’s sustainability in practice.

And while we’re on sustainability, I’d like to ask a question. The North-South divide is as obvious in arts funding as it is on the railways. But there’s another kind of divide I want to address. There are six major theatre venues in the centre of Manchester and Salford, four of them Arts Council-funded, with a total of 7,800 seats to fill, and there are several unfunded fringe venues with another 300 seats between them. And soon The Factory will open in Manchester. It’s a theatre and gallery space named after Factory Records, designed to be the home of the Manchester International Festival, with an additional 1,500 seats to fill every night, and only costing (at the last count) £111 million.

Meanwhile, Oldham Coliseum’s much needed new £7 million theatre has been cancelled, and The Dukes is in financial difficulty. I’m sure this makes sense to someone, but not to me. Who’s up for doing Robin Hood next year?

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Photos by Joel Fildes

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Cinderella is on until January 11, 2020. For more information, click here.