Most new musicals take a while to see the light of day, maybe peeping over the parapet with workshops, or even a concept CD, long before they hit the stage. Few, however, gestate quite as long as Soho Cinders, a musical from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (Honk!, Just So, the expanded stage version of Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Betty Blue Eyes) which, as Mark Shenton notes today, has been in development for most of this century already.
And it’s a very 21st century piece – a modern day Cinderella story, with rent boy Robbie using the wages from his escort services to fund his law studies, in order to prove that his wicked stepsisters have illegally taken over his late mother’s coffee shop. The ball becomes a fund-raising bash for a good-looking mayoral candidate whom Robbie has been seeing on the side, although he’s there to escort the wealthy businessman who’s bankrolling the mayoral bid. And when he’s exposed as a rent boy and runs off, it’s not a shoe he leaves behind, but a mobile phone…
Part of the reason for Soho Cinders‘ long period in development is that the piece has had to take second place to Stiles and Drewe’s commissioned work. As George Stiles says in this week’s The Stage, “that’s the kind of distraction I can deal with.” But a piece which sets itself firmly in the current age has also had problems with technology outpacing plot ideas. At one stage, a subplot was to involve a ‘faked’ photograph that would turn up in the following day’s newspapers – but in the days of 24 hour news and Twitter, exposure must be assumed to be instant.
A number of songs from Soho Cinders were performed in the 2008 concert A Spoonful of Stile and Drewe (still available on much-recommended CD). But last night, the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue saw the premiere of a full-length, semi-staged concert version. An all-star cast – Michael Xavier, David Bedella, Hannah Waddingham, Sharon D Clarke, Amy Lennox and more – backed by a 14-strong ensemble and a full band led by George Stiles gave the first glimpse of a musical which, by virtue of being unfinished for so many years, has taken on something of mythic status among musical theatre fan circles.
After so much anticipation, expectations were so high that it would have been easy for the concert to fall short in one way or another. Happily, what we got instead was a joyous evening, showcasing a musical theatre writing duo who are eager to show that there’s much more to them than the retro qualities of Mary Poppins and the recently closed Betty Blue Eyes.
Fans of the Spoonful concert and CD will be familiar with most of the songs in Soho Cinders’ first act, save for the opening scene setter (Old Compton Street) and Spin, a duet between mayoral candidate James Prince (Xavier) and his campaign manager William George (Bedella). In Stiles and Drewe’s (somewhat idealised) version of London, Soho is the area where respectable businessmen rub shoulders – and occasionally other body parts – with partygoers of any, and all, sexual persuasions. The Latin vibe of It’s Hard to Tell is a celebration of metrosexuality in all its various guises, and was just one of many songs that was enhanced by some sterling choreography by Drew McOnie, who’s really making a well-earned name for himself in this field.
If there’s a fault in the first act, it’s that the beautiful ballad Gypsies of the Ether – a sumptuous ballad about falling in love, or at least hooking up, online with an “intimate stranger” – seems to have been overtaken by the changes in plot. In the current concert form, rent boy Johnnie (Jos Slovick) goes online to chat to Prince, even though they have just spoken on the phone to arrange a face-to-face meet. As a result, the glories of that number seem a little lost, as the story at that point does not quite match the sentiments expressed in the song.
It’s hard to dwell on such slight issues for long, however, when the number is followed by the ugly stepsisters Clodagh and Dana’s uproarious attempt to give up on the opposite sex, I’m So Over Men. A hilariously filthy number that combines end-of-the-pier sauciness with a very modern attitude to sex, it showcases the comedic abilities of the two characters, as played here by Suzie Chard and Beverly Rudd, to perfection.
It’s the second act which contains my two favourite numbers of the whole piece, though. Slovick’s rendition of (They Don’t Make) Glass Slippers wasn’t, on the night, quite as superb as either Gareth Gates’ rendition from the 2008 concert, or Daniel Boys’ incredibly moving interpretation on his album So Close, but it remains one of the emotional cornerstones of the whole piece and is, I think, possibly my favourite Stiles and Drewe song from all their 27-year history of working together.
One number which did not feature in the 2008 CD, and so was new to me (and, I suspect, to most of the audience) last night was Let Him Go, a duet between Robbie’s best mate Velcro (the nickname a nod, of course, to Cinderella’s best friend Buttons) and Marilyn, mayoral candidate Prince’s fiancée who has just found out about his affair with Robbie. It’s a beautiful number, enhanced all the more by being performed here by Amy Lennox and Hannah Waddingham. As Marilyn, Waddingham took a part which is currently underwritten and, within seconds, turned it into a fully fleshed character. At the moment, Marilyn gets only one solo number – a reprise of the first act’s Spin. Waddingham’s performance highlighted that the character really merits her own number.
So what now for Soho Cinders? A CD of the full concert will be available from next month, but how long it will take until a much-deserved theatrical production remains to be seen. Hopefully in the time it does take, the book will be tightened up – not only so that Gypsies of the Ether feels less shoehorned in, but also so that the dialogue and jokes are as finely polished as Anthony Drewe’s knowing, clever and genuinely funny lyrics. At the moment, as my theatregoing companion noted during the interval, the songs are West End, but the book’s a bit Above the Stag…
I hope it won’t take another nine years before a full version of Soho Cinders finally makes it to a West End stage. It would be a tragedy if it did not make that transition at some point – there can be no musical that better deserves to go to the ball. All it needs now is a fairy godmother…