My reasons for attending Soho Cinders were not the strongest. I needed to entice a down friend out of her house and a musical seemed like just the trick, but given that it was a new musical and expensive to boot (I wound up paying 35 quid for our tickets), I feared it might leave us both disappointed. Stiles and Drewe did a nice job with Betty Blue Eyes, but … well, then there’s the part of me that always wants to see a new show, especially a new musical, given how few new musicals are created in a given year. So we went, and I brought fancy chocolates from Paul Young and hoped they would console if the evening wasn’t going well.
The space is very intimate – about 150 people, I think, with a good rake. However, the lower half of the stalls were FREEZING. And all of the “stalls” bench seats were that horrible Soho theater special, two lobes all the way across each row, the forward one raised just high enough to slowly cut your circulation off during the course of a show. I’d say you’d be totally safe with any seat in this house, so no need to splurge on the most expensive ones – they won’t be any more comfortable.
The set up of the play is that a Soho rent boy (Robbie, played by Tom Milner) has had the misfortune to fall in love with a politician (James Prince, played by Michael Xavier) … who is in the closet and engaged. Said rent boy is also occasionally providing services for the politician’s main campaign donor (Lord Bellingham, played by Neil McCaul). Cue Robbie showing up at a fund raising ball that both men are attending … it’s, as he says, “Awkward!”
And thus you get some of the key elements of the Cinderella story, with Robby running away and leaving his phone behind. The show takes on other areas using a very panto-y approach, replacing the Wishy Washy washhouse with a laundromat that Robbie runs with his best friend Velcro (the adorable Amy Lennox). Comic relief is provided by the very trashy and rather dragged up stepsisters, Dana (Beverly Rudd) and Clodagh (Susie Chard), who own a strip club next door – and want to expand into the laundrette. The parallels are easy enough to see and provide a reasonable framework to hang this original story from. (For full details and song snippets, see the synopsis on the Stile and Drew site).
The question is, of course: does it work? For me, the answer is no, and this comes down in a great deal to the songwriting. I want musicals to have songs that are catchy, that send me home whistling a new tune. Now, I laughed my head off at the Evil Stepsisters’ song “I’m so over men,” and there were quite a few very smart lyrics over the course of the evening, but the individual songs seemed to disappear into an unmemorable morass of tunefulness that lacked definition. The night before I’d gone to a second-rate Kander and Ebb, and walked out singing, “It’s a Business:” at the end of this show, I struggled to remember the melody of even a single one of the songs even as I stood in the lobby afterwards. This is not good.
As a play with some singing (and not very interesting dancing, so let’s call it “movement”), it’s not bad, taken from a lighthearted panto for adults standpoint. Robby is just terribly sincere and adorable, and James Prince is awfully sweet in that “I’m confused about what I want” kind of way. And, well, the stepsisters steal the show, what with their garish clothing, panty flashing, and filthy mouths. Fantastic!
However … I think it’s time someone had just a little bit of a look at this play from a bi visibility standpoint. James Prince’s fiancee says she loves him and they had an active sex life … so why can’t she just accept his bisexuality instead of saying that she’s going to leave him because she doesn’t want to have to share? Both the fiancee and Velcro make it out that men are either gay or straight, an attitude that actively disappears a large swath of Soho denizens. Prince is actually far more of a villain than he’s made out to be in the play, because he’s incapable of being honest with the person he says he wants to be a part of his life. Why can’t he accept himself as he is and try to find a way to make it work?
Maybe it’s ultimately because fairy tales need easy answers and bisexual people just don’t fit as nicely into boxes as this play needed. But I think that, even though this play seems very modern for saying that you can run for office and be gay (and that’s a step forward), that being bi would not be okay. Because in fairytales, people don’t have to worry about being torn between two different elements of their identity: they are good or bad, pretty or ugly, loving or cruel. They can’t be confused. And I agree, if life were really never like that, we would truly be living a life in which there were nothing but happy endings.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Saturday, August 4th, at 8 PM. There were some problems with miking and sound cues that I assume will sorted out in a day or two. It continues through September 9th.)