CinderELLA, Nuffield Theatre City, Southampton

AFTER the triumph of last year’s award-winning Christ­mas show, David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy, the city centre Nuffield Theatre had a hard act to follow, and has sensibly taken a very different approach for the 2019/20 production.

This is the world’s favourite pantomime story, Cinderella, but not as you know it.  In Michael Fentiman’s adaptation, which he has also directed, the old story of Ashputtle (the basis for Cinderella) has been brought right into the 21st century, with music to match by Barnaby Race.

Designer Madeleine Girling has created a monumental clock as a centrepiece, and, as in her designs for Amelie, there is lots of stylish space for the talented musician-actors to unfold the familiar story in a very unfamiliar way.

This CinderELLA is about two women. One is Cinders, a student who can’t seem to assimilate into her college life, and the other is Ella Ash, a lonely widow whose husband has died apparently without leaving a will. And when there’s a will there’s a family, as we all know. Her husband had two nieces, Melania and Ivanka, and nasty pieces of work they certainly are.

In their town there’s a run-down ballroom, but Harry Prince and his nephew Dan are doing it up. Everyone is waiting for the Midnight Ballroom to reopen.

And the stage is set to tell a Cinderella story full of messages, lessons, music and fun.

With three pianos on set, you never who will be playing the very varied music, and it ranges from opera and belt to folk and old rock’n’roll.

The cast of seven all have to sing, dance, play instruments and capture characters, but in this production the stage is never as cluttered as in some of its ilk. It might be a bit confusing for younger children, looking for the princess and the fairy godmother of their storybooks, but it is cleverly thought through and beautifully performed. The energetic and multi-talented cast brings the story to vivid and modern life.

Lydia White and Valda Aviks share the title role with panache and poignancy. Lydia’s Cinders is a kind, thoughtful girl who just can’t get over her past, and Valda’s ELLA revels in her happy youthful memories and just  wants to be sure her life won’t upset her beloved Burt.

All it needs is a bit of magic in the shape of a Welsh bobby (the delightful Tom Hier).

Emma Darlow’s Melania plays a mean fiddle as well as pairing up with the awful Ivanka (Imelda Warren-Green) to insult and imprison  ELLA and to wreak havoc  at the Ball.

Jos Slovick returns to Southampton after his Kai in 2014’s The Snow Queen to make a reticent, patient and very musical Dan, with Michael O’Connor as his grandfather Harry.

There’s no audience participation as such in this show, but one of the messages is that you are much better off putting the past “behind you.”

CinderELLA is at Southamp­ton until 5th January.

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Photographs by The Other Richard