revew: Cinderella – Derby Theatre
by Mike Kenny/
dir Sarah Brigham/
04/12/2015 – 09/01/2016//
in which our hero reflects on the words of an animated rabbit
Am I an underdog? I’ve been thinking a lot about where I fit lately, about what systems hold me in place/allow me to wriggle, about where I go next. I’ve currently got a very empty-looking 2016, aside from a little dramaturgy work, and I’ve got a calendar to fill, and rent and food money to earn. I’m simultaneously very aware of the little fortune I have and very anxious about losing hold of it.
The whole premise under which I write this post is that I get to see theatre without paying, so long as I write about it afterwards. I’d call it my job, but I don’t get paid for it*. It’s an alright deal, though I am currently trying to emancipate myself as an independent writer in my own right by making the deal slightly less alright and writing twice as much.
The more specific premise is that I saw Derby Theatre’s production of Mike Kenny’s Cinderella just before New Year with my mum. I lacked the forethought to ask for press tickets before the Theatre’s Press Officer went on holiday, so we bought ours. It was ace. An absolutely ace production which fully deserves all the praise it’s been getting and me and my mum loved it. I totally need to see more theatre with my mum because it’s lovely to do. She’s a primary school teacher and the junior classes from her school had already been and brought back very positive reactions, so we headed down.
Kenny’s retelling is delivered by an ensemble of Rats. Which makes a nice change from fairy godmothers and disembodied narrators. The narrative embeds itself in the body politic of the Rats, who act out the story and take on the other characters (besides Cinderella herself, played by Esme Sears) and sporadically burst into songs about the joys of being a rat (‘it’s where it’s at’).
Cinderella’s an underdog story, essentially. Miserable girl has miserable life, foisted on her by miserable relatives, but her and her plucky friends win out in the end. Aside from the misery being a very fairytale and conquerable sort of misery, Derby Theatre’s Cinderella actually reminds me a lot of their autumn production of Brassed Off. In addition to both benefiting from Sarah Brigham’s characteristically lively direction, both were tales of fighting back. Perhaps Derby Theatre is wearing its politics slightly less on its sleeve this time around (it is a Christmas show) but they’re the driving force below the surface.
I can’t say I’ve ever related to Cinderella or Rats before but in Derby Theatre’s production, they’re all charged with anxiety. Sure, they’re jolly, but it’s not the blind jolliness and plucky good luck of Disney. This version is fucking miserable until it gets better: Cinderella is on the edge of despair for years. The rats start the show with this fragmented traumatic group-monologue about Cinders being gone and it’s heart-breaking; the world has been blown apart. Starting on which, though, gives the rest of the play scope to bucket in the optimism, and by the end it’s damn empowering seeing the rats dancing and playing, and reclaiming ‘vermin’ as their own positive signifier.
Yes I’m getting weepy about a load of rats, let me have my moment. Seriously though, that word, vermin, it’s evocative of Katie Hopkins’s diatribe against refugees, the rats evocative of Nazi propaganda, the Ungeziefer** of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. These are powerful words and ideas at the heart of this show’s conception of otherness, of an underclass, of the sections of the world population who we find routinely demonised every day. Well done, James, you’ve made a Christmas production of Cinderella sound radical. Though it totally is, considering it’s a Christmas production of Cinderella.
Talking of underdogs, and animals. I want to turn for a moment to Bojack Horseman, and Rutabaga’s Movie Star Speech.
Bojack Horseman is an ace piece of animated drama, and its anthropomorphic animal characters are dense, complicated, beautiful and so fucking human it hurts. I know this speech is pretty clichéd and a little vacuous, but in the context of the scene that doesn’t matter because it helps. Princess Caroline (the pink cat) knows the speech already and knows it’s not true just as much as she knows that speech is what she needs in that moment.
Now I don’t actually think I’m some sort of heroic lead that the universe is eventually going to resolve itself around, but I want to make the point that there’s something necessary about telling lies to ourselves. In all those stories with the big comebacks: Cinderella, Lord of the Rings, Bojack Horseman, the protagonists lose faith. But there’s an inspiring/magical moment to pull them back, to drag them up the mountain. We don’t have those. We’re not stars of movies and we’re not heroic leads. We’re just folk in real danger of losing hope every day. So we need to keep lying to ourselves, keep pretending we have some reason to be and do beyond our selves.
I worry, how much is already in my head? What am I blocking myself off from without even realising it? There was a group of people, perhaps in their 60s, sat next to my mum who hated the show. They were talking about booing the company when they came on for the second act. My mum had a chat with them during the interval and they were outraged that it ‘wasn’t a panto’. Mum pointed out that it had never been billed as a panto (and it’s been publicised for about a year by the time the run started) but these people were beyond bringing round. They had a mental block, stopping them seeing the show as anything other than a failure to produce a panto.
I do that too, all the time. If I go to a show expecting it to be shit, I’ll find you any number of reasons as to why it was a failure of a piece of theatre. If I go to a show and want it to be excellent, I’ll rave about everything I thought the least bit commendable. That’s how theatre crit works, isn’t it? It’s dishonest and everyone politely ignores that. But that’s a large part of how we live our lives. I wrote about Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation last year and wrote about how the way we engage with theatre is through a string of ‘ruinings’ – every encounter we have with a show takes us further away from experiencing it objectively***. That’s life – everything’s corrupted with our usness everytime we think about it. Life’s dishonest and everyone politely ignores that.
At the same time I’m concerning myself with my own future I look at the news that the Tories have just cut all student grants and it seems that everyone younger than me keep getting steadily more fucked. This Tory government seem to be wilfully creating more and more underdogs. Gavroche, from Les Miserables, comes to mind, with his promise that ‘you better run for cover when the pup grows up’. Gavroche, of course, gets shot along with his fellow revolutionaries.
I’m searching for hope and contrary to my train of thought I am finding it. I’m finding it, as I usually do, in the knowledge that all the kids in the audience had an absolutely excellent time, and I’m sure the majority of the adults did, too. I’m finding it in dancing rats rejoicing in being Vermin, and the fact that the costume and set design was well gorj. And there’s something very reassuring when kids get excited about the same thing you do. It’s like a hundred tiny voices saying “Don’t worry, you’ve not really grown up. Not really.”
And I keep along my track and keep trying to keep from lying down and giving up. As long as I keep telling, and listening to, the right lies, maybe I can do some good somewhere.
*I’d like to, tho
**German. vermin/lit. ‘creature unfit for sacrifice’
***As if that’s the point tho amirite