Matthew Whittet’s previous works have included School Dance and Fugitive (two thirds of the Windmill Trilogy). In each case, Whittet takes a well-known story and tweaks and incorporates it into a larger work which interrogates the original as well as making it resonate for a contemporary audience. While School Dance was an extended homage to Eighties high-school dramas, Fugitive was a critique of the Robin Hood legend (complete with Stormtroopers), and both plays were engaging and clever pieces of theatre, both from a script perspective as well as being accomplished and sometimes remarkable examples of stagecraft. Whittet’s imagination is no doubt a very fertile place, capable of grand statements as well as more intimate, smaller-scale pieces such as Old Man – a tender portrait of fathers, sons, relationships and loss – which played at Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre in 2012.
Belvoir’s Cinderella, then, is very much in the same mould as the Windmill trilogy, despite not being a part of it. It is, however, a peculiar play. Created from an original concept by Anthea Williams (Belvoir’s Literary Manager, who also directs this production), it feels as though it is only tangentially related to the story of Cinderella, and as though it is still halfway through its dramaturgical fruition. As a play, Cinderella seeks to use the time-worn fairytale as the basis for a piece which examines psychological strength, determination, grief, and the transcendent power of transformation. Unfortunately for Whittet and Williams, this ‘fairytale for adults’ doesn’t really delve into the deep wellspring of its myriad sources as much as it could, nor does it really progress dynamically from the first two scenes where we meet Ashley, Ash and (briefly) Richard, and the whole crazy train of the night’s events are set in motion. Nor is it terribly ‘adult’ at all.
Narratively, the story is simple: a woman tries to go on a date, but runs away. A guy follows her, concerned after she hit her head, and the two begin a kind of friendship over the course of the rest of the night. There are a few gratuitous nods to the fairytale in many of its guises, and both the characters are Cinderellas in their own right. But that’s pretty much where the similarities stop. Whittet’s play is an extended rhapsody upon a theme of two people chatting in a particular location, with many sentiments feeling rather autobiographical and not having grown out of the story or its context – as though the characters were merely mouthpieces for Whittet’s own thoughts (however accurate (or not) they may be).
That said, Anthea Williams directs with clarity and simplicity – there are no obscurities or unsureties, every choice is clear and works towards the story’s telling. Her cast – Matthew Whittet as Ash and Richard, and Mandy McElhinney as Ashley – are pitch-perfect, although Whittet at times draws upon his stock geeky schtick which he uses in the Windmill trilogy to great effect. Where there was a purpose for it in the trilogy shows, here there doesn’t seem to be; the world of Cinderella is very much our own world. The Windmill trilogy exists in heightened realities of the genres it is commenting on – they are deliberately exaggerated for dramatic and comic effect and while it works tremendously well in those cases, Cinderella is neither surreal nor a pantomime and thus Whittet’s goofball antics seem out of place, no matter how hilarious or endearing they may be at the time. Within the realm of its story and world, Williams’ production hits all the right notes, and some of it is quite beautiful – at least, it is initially, before the moments are drawn out longer than they need to be. There is a discussion about The Neverending Story which is particularly memorable, although it is characteristic of Whittet’s work in the Windmill trilogy, where pop culture references are peppered throughout the script as a kind of narrative in-joke, a shortcut to an idea or theme he wants to name-drop or include in the narrative tapestry of the piece. Again, while it works in the Trilogy plays, here it is too visible a device for us not to see Whittet-the-playwright winking at us, asking us if we get the reference.
Elizabeth Gadsby’s set is simple and malleable – a concrete curb and gutter runs along the wall, opening out to a lush grass-coloured carpet – and allows for the script’s diverse locations to be played out on the one space with barely more than Matthew Marshall’s lighting and a few cushions or stools required to signify a different place or time. Despite its potentially engaging and occasionally endearing exterior, you would lose nothing of this Cinderella if it was condensed into a shorter play, perhaps twenty minutes long.
Theatre playlist: 71. Spring Rain, The Go-Betweens