The story of Cinderella has always been heavy with Freudian overtones: the sexual symbolism of the foot and the slipper – which in the Old French version is made of fur (vair), not glass (verre) – the predominance of female characters, the Oedipal nature of the relationship between Cinderella and her father. These themes are very evident in the Grimm Brothers’ version, Aschenputtel, and are given full expression in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s re-interpretation of the story, The Ash Girl; it is markedly different from what has become the modern, sanitised version with Cinders singing sweet, sad songs with her good friend, Buttons. The familiar characters are augmented by the seven sins, whose influence on the action is made clear: as the Pridefly says, ‘We can only enter humans through faults in their beings – and there always is one.’
One of the most striking lines in the piece is when the Ash Girl says, ‘I’m sorry for being me’, and a character called Sadness is also introduced to represent this side of her personality. But Sadness’s direct rival is the Fairy of the Mirror (the equivalent of the Fairy Godmother): ‘See yourself with clear eyes,’ she says. The important quest here is not the Prince’s search for the Ash Girl but her struggle to find her own identity.
Unusually, this review should give credit first to the costumes and masks. A play in which monsters are a theme and there are eight allegorical figures to dress, plus the Fairy of the Mirror, has given a mouth-watering opportunity to the students of Costume and Performance Design – one which they have grabbed with both hands. The seven deadly sins are clearly delineated by their weird, wonderful but always effective costumes, while the bearing of the Prince and his mother owes much to their regal dress. A shout-out for the dressers, too, as there is a lot of doubling of roles, involving some incredibly quick costume changes.
The set could hardly be more simple. The audience sits round three sides, the fourth being a quite steep ramp, which the production uses shrewdly and effectively. Two crates are about the only props, doubling as a divan for the Prince. The most effective aspect of the staging comes as the Fairy of the Mirror prepares the Ash Girl for the ball; the transformation scene is brilliantly done.
In the title role, Chloe Hatherley gives a moving performance which surely has every audience member empathising with her as she seeks both happiness and herself. There are stand-out performances by her sisters, too: Erin-mae Cecilia, who doubles up as Lust (a key figure in the reunion of the Ash Girl and her beloved father), and Lucy Newbery, who also makes a most endearing Slothworm. As their mother, Leah Graham uses her height well to be the imposing embodiment of evil ambition.
In this version, the Prince is an unsettled newcomer in a foreign land, and Nebras Jamali conveys his frustration most effectively. The chemistry between him and the Ash Girl, especially as they dance at the ball, is deeply touching. His mother, Princess Zehra (Lorraine Moalosi) is always elegant and gives a spellbinding final speech.
Among the other roles, Brooke Jones moves noticeably well as Angerbird, and Connor Wilson-Taylor takes on three parts as Greedmonkey, Otter (the closest this Cinders comes to a Buttons) and ‘Man’ – an anonymous name for a key figure in the Freudian interpretation of the play. But there is talent all the way through the cast and everyone associated with this production has played a part in creating something exceptional.
Future performances: 25 and 26 November at 3.00 and 7.30.