at the Charing Cross Theatre
for The Reviews Hub
Above our heads, trains rumble to the southern suburbs. And on the compact Charing Cross stage, beyond the footlights, giant untitled tomes, which double inventively as doors and windows, with more books, pop-up this time, for the tree-tops.
Mandy Holliday's take on The Tinderbox is some distance removed from Hans Christian Andersen, though we do have the three dogs, and the cast, in narrator mode, sport seasonal Scandi pullis.
Chief delight of the 70-minute production is the use of music – all carefully listed in the glossy programme, which also has the complete story for bedtimes yet to come. Against full orchestral backing tracks, the cast – some excellent voices here – sing new words in an unashamedly operatic style. A Valkyrie Mabel, Mozart's Horn Concerto, a Strauss trio, and, for the young lovers, a wonderful vocal pas-de-deux from The Sleeping Beauty. As they step forward to the footlights, there's a moment of pure Victorian romance, easily recognizable by the theatre-goers who first sought entertainment under the arches in the 1850s.
This production – directed by Abbi Pickard Price, with choreography by Lily Hone – is full of fun, with plenty of pantomime-style interaction: He's behind you ! Oh no you're not … There's a cracked mirror, a magic apron, a chain of paper men for the chorus. The little tinder box itself is magically transported all over the stage, the attractions of the big city - “OPERA”, “BALLET”, “SHOPPING” - appear in lights on the spines of the books. And, more randomly, a yoyo and a rubber chicken.
Mandy Holliday herself plays the Old Witch, with her tiny cauldron, plus Harry the Hound and the Wicked Queen. Samuel J Weir is Brian the Brave, dashing hero, flirting with the audience and generously sharing his gold coins. His Princess is Bridget Costello, and the Gold Dog is Ceris Hine. Everyone works hard to people the story – though we never meet Prince Wobblebottom from the Kingdom of Chaos; there are charming puppets, too, a minimalist horse, a slender ballerina, and the dogs are cleverly imagined.
The transformation is brilliantly if simply done; elsewhere the magic is spread a little thin. But young theatre-goers – too tiny perhaps for a full-blown panto – will appreciate the shouting and the silliness, whilst for the mums, grand-parents and au pairs, there's some lovely singing to proper classical tunes, and a vague memory of a fairy tale from childhood.