Share |

The Glass Slipper

Published by: Steve Burbridge on 6th Dec 2011 | View all blogs by Steve Burbridge

TOF_7970 - Ella Humbleton (played by Laura Riseborough) - photo credit - Topher McGrillis.jpg

The Glass Slipper

Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne

It was with optimistic anticipation that I took my seat at Northern Stage to watch their Christmas production, The Glass Slipper. The venue has a reputation for taking well-known folk/fairy tales and giving them a strong local twist through the use of North East settings, dialect and music, which worked to especially great effect in their 2008/09 production of Hansel and Gretel.

This season Stephen Sharkey (writer) and Erica Whyman (director) once again collaborate to re-tell the tale of Cinderella. Again they demonstrate inventive creativity by placing the story in 18th century Newcastle. Set in the 1780’s, when Newcastle was the largest glass-producing centre in the world, Ella Humbleton (Laura Riseborough) lives in fashionable Summerhill Square, tucked away behind Westgate Road. Her widowed father, Sir Henry (Ian McLaughlin), a glass-maker, is often abroad on business trips and Ella occupies herself as a music teacher to the precocious children of wealthy families to pass the time. However, Ella’s life is to change significantly, for the worse, when Sir Henry corresponds to inform her that he has re-married and she now has a step-mother and two step-sisters, who will arrive from Richmond, Surrey, imminently.

The promising opening scene, which takes place in 1860, is beautifully staged. Ella’s mother, Isabella (Ann Marcuson), has just given birth and, in doing so, has lost a lot of blood. She realises that death approaches and spends her last moments comforting her newly-born daughter, reassuring her that, in times of trouble, she will never be far away. Such a poignant scene raised my expectations, only for them to be dashed as the narrative progressed.

The problem with The Glass Slipper is easily identifiable – it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It is neither a play nor a pantomime and this lack of a distinct identity relegates it to what can only be described as a theatrical ‘no man’s land’. There are scenes in which the production takes itself far too seriously, rendering them contrived and conceited, and others in which references to modern popular culture (including the ‘macarena’ dance) undermine the painstaking attention to historical accuracy that is abundantly evident in everything from Angela Simpson’s sumptuous costume design to Sam Kenyon’s musical compositions, which perfectly reflect the period. The result is something of a messy mish-mash of past and present.

Sharkey’s script gives the performers little to work with and I was uncertain as to why so much was made of Prince Hubert’s (Will Featherstone) obsession with hot air ballooning. It did nothing to facilitate the narrative progression and could easily have been omitted entirely. The only positive consequence of this superfluous sub-plot was Ella’s arrival at the Alnwick Castle ball in an impressive hot air balloon, rather than the traditional pumpkin coach. Whyman’s direction, too, is cumbersome and there are a number of longueurs, during which my attention began to wander.

As might be expected, the pretentions of the writer and director had an unfortunate effect upon performances. Bev Fox (as wicked step-mother, Augusta Snifflewick) and Ian McLaughlin (doubling-up as Sir Henry Humbleton and King George III) are the only locally-known ‘names’ and they appeared distinctly ill-at-ease away from their comfort zone of The Suggestibles, the improvisation-based comedy group of which they are both members. I was disappointed, too, by Laura Riseborough’s portrayal of Ella. The characterisation, which was haughty and aloof, had her mocking the students under her tutelage, feigning illness to avoid teaching them and displaying an unwarranted and unappealing, objectionable attitude towards the Prince. Nor did I feel she was visually-suited to the role. Only Ann Marcuson, in her portrayal of the guardian spirit of Isabella, Ella’s mother (who entered, at times of turmoil, through a gilt portrait frame) demonstrated herself worthy of singular praise.

Whether it was due to uninspired writing or technical laziness, the transformation scene was totally devoid of any magic whatsoever. No waving of a magic wand, no flashes of light or puffs of smoke – in fact no real ‘transformation’ as such. Simply, a case of Isabella’s spirit asking Ella if she liked the ball-gown, Ella replying that she did and Isabella telling her to go and put it on then! The children in the audience must have felt robbed and cheated – I know I did! The fact that they remained so impeccably quiet throughout the show can, perhaps, be attributed to the probability that they’d fallen asleep from boredom rather than the possibility that they were enthralled by the production.

Often, during the Christmas season, I am tempted to make a return visit and see certain productions or pantomimes for a second time. Would I consider watching The Glass Slipper again? Suffice to say that the thought of gouging my own eyes out with a soup spoon seems infinitely more appealing!

Steve Burbridge.

The Glass Slipper runs until Saturday 7 January 2012






Please login or sign up to post on this network.
Click here to sign up now.