Review: Cinderella (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 13 – Dec 14, 2014
Playwright: Matthew Whittet (based on an original concept by Anthea Williams)
Director: Anthea Williams
Cast: Mandy McElhinney, Matthew Whittet
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Fairy tales appeal to our basic desires. They address our need to be acknowledged and exalted, which is probably why they so often take the form of love stories. Matthew Whittet and Anthea Williams’s Cinderella is about our need for love, but it seeks to transform the fantasies and lies of Disney world, relocating it to a space of truth, lived experience, and disappointment. Its characters Ashley and Ash, are thoroughly familiar beings who remind us of ourselves and of people we meet everyday. They are strangers in the night who reach out to each other, hoping for a connection, and it is that possibility of a soul finding its other half that touches and engages us.

When both Ashleys meet, their accidental encounter is an awkward one. They are not brassy personalities, and their attempts at stretching beyond their individual comfort zones in the act of seduction becomes the comedic core of the production. The actors are brilliant comics who deliver laughs with precision, but the plot feels repetitive in its emphasis on creating jokes from that incessant awkwardness that subsumes the otherwise interesting development of character and relationship that takes place under the surface. A major tonal shift finally occurs in the last quarter of the show, bringing a breath of fresh air along with immense poignancy. The conclusion is beautifully crafted, although the depth that is eventually exposed feels sadly momentary.

The charismatic Whittet plays Ash with an attractive ease, consistently amusing his audience with a quirky instinctual approach. The actor has a slight physique and his countenance is plain, but the magnetic presence he adds to the stage assertively demands our attention, determined to entertain at every opportunity. Also enjoyable is Mandy McElhinney, who presents herself as a committed comedian, always sensitive to punchlines and timing. Her enthusiasm for creating laughter is infectious, but it also alienates us from the emotional arc of her character’s journey. We wish to dive into Ashley’s experience, but often find ourselves pushed out to observe only the funny side of scenarios. It is noteworthy that McElhinney and Whittet perform the final dark scenes with excellent and surprising intensity, leaving us wishing for more of their serious sides.

This Cinderella is an accurate and timely representation of romance in the digital age. Technology and commerce have penetrated every aspect of our lives, yet some of our notions of love and relationships are adamantly traditional and wholesome. The show looks at how we survive loneliness, and the meaning of sex and relationships in the era of dating apps and casual hook ups. The reality is unbearably grim, but it is human to shield our vulnerability with dreams. In affairs of the heart, delusions and hope are two sides of the same coin, and only the ones looking at the stars will stand a chance of fleeing the gutter.