Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Soho Cinders

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

✭✭

music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe, book by Anthony Drewe & Elliot Davis, directed by Will Keith

Will Keith for Theatre Syndicate London & Starting Over Theatricals Ltd., Charing Cross Theatre, London, GBR

October 28, booking to January 11, 2020

Robbie and Prince: “You are my intimate stranger, you are my far away friend,

Two souls linked by a highway, and the messages we send”

If you are in London looking for a musical that is pure unpretentious fun, cleverly written and stunningly well performed by the entire cast, then look no further than Soho Cinders now booking to December 21, 2019. The 2012 musical was written by the duo of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, the same team who wrote the wonderful Ugly Duckling musical Honk! that won the Olivier Award for Best Musical in 2000. You get to see all the energy of a troupe of young performers up close in the intimate Charing Cross Theatre (265 seats) for a fraction of the price of a big West End musical (tickets are an unbelievable £15.00-£37.50).

As one might gather from the title, Soho Cinders is a variation on the Cinderella story set in Soho, well known as the centre of gay nightlife in London and for other activities once deemed morally dubious. The action is set sometime in the near future. We know this because the voice of a narrator tells us that patrons lining up outside the Prince Edward Theatre to see Frozen 5 are rubbing shoulders with prostitutes.

The focus of the show is the young gay man Robbie (Luke Bayer), a student who runs his family’s coin laundrette owned by his mean, anti-gay step-sisters Clodagh (Michaela Stern) and Dana (Laura Fulgenzi, stepping in for Natalie Harman the night I attended). The sisters run a strip club next door and since their and Robbie’s mother left no will, they hope to take over the launderette and expand their club into the space.

When we first meet Robbie, he has just accepted money from an older man (Christopher Coleman) whom we later discover is Lord Bellingham, who is financing the run for mayor of James Prince (Lewis Asquith). Bellingham and Robbie have never had sex, and Robbie has used the much-needed money to pay the ever-increasing rent his step-sisters are charging. Yet, Robbie fears that Bellingham’s gifts are Bellingham’s plan to make him feel obliged to become sexually involved.

Meanwhile, Robbie has fallen in love with another older man, though not as old as Bellingham, via a gay dating app. The man happens to be James Prince himself. Prince’s manipulative campaign manager William George (Ewan Gillies) knows nothing of this and, more importantly, neither does Prince’s fiancée Marilyn (Tori Hargreaves), who always appears by Prince’s side at all the publicity events George arranges.

As should be clear, book writers Anthony Drewe and Elliot Davis have taken the outline of the Cinderella story and given it all sorts of twists. Part of the fun of watching the show is determining what parts of the story follow the traditional narrative and what parts don’t. Drewe and Davis are clever in the decisions they make in both situations. We have the Ugly Step-Sisters, but they find a discarded invitation and invite themselves to the ball whereas Robbie is deliberately invited by Lord Bellingham, which presents its own problems. There is a midnight deadline but no magic pumpkin. When Robbie sees both Lord Bellingham and James Prince at the same ball and they see him and each other, Robbie knows it’s time to flee. There is no glass slipper but Robbie does drop his cellphone which is what makes it hard for anyone to find him.

In many ways Drewe and Davis’s reworking of the story is more interesting than the traditional narrative because it gives the normally anodyne Prince a personality and a serious conflict he has to work through. Can he acknowledge his love for Robbie and still continue to campaign for mayor? How can he confess his love for Robbie without hurting Marilyn?

One of the many delights of the show is how it begins as what appears as merely a gay version of a familiar fairy tale complete with a voice-over narrator to explain it to us boys and girls. Yet, the more the show progresses the more the notion of parody evaporates and the more we become involved in the serious decisions the characters make.

The cast could not be bettered. All have strong voices, all are excellent actors and all perfectly execute Adam Haigh’s inventive choreography that combines moves from ballroom, disco and show dancing. It’s too bad that the cast have to be miked in such a small venue, yet it does help when one of the trains from Charing Cross station above the theatre rumbles overhead.

Luke Bayer makes a stellar Robbie, a confused young guy who has foolishly got himself into a bad situation with Lord Bellingham, needing Bellingham’s money but mentally blocking out what Bellingham is really after. Bayer has a sweet, high voice that makes his slow song "They Don't Make Glass Slippers" of Act 2 especially lovely. Bayer conveys such passion it’s not surprising that he was an alternate in the title role of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

Robbie has a gal pal in the story named Velcro. Millie O’Connell receives top billing along with Bayer because her role is so important. Velcro (real name Sonia) is in love with Robbie but knows his sexuality puts him off bounds. Nevertheless, she is his main confidante and helps him, and any other of the good people she encounters, in any way she can. While Lord Bellingham claims he is Robbie’s “fairy godmother” because he provides Robbie with the money for expensive clothes to wear to the ball, we have to wonder whether the story’s real “fairy godmother” isn’t Velcro because she is the one who helps all who come to her to sort out their problems. O’Connell has a lovely, rich voice and is especially fine in the great duet she has with the distraught Marilyn “Let Him Go” in which each sings separately and together about the need to let the men they love go their own ways.

Michaela Stern and Laura Fulgenzi are hilariously vulgar as the step-sisters Clodagh and Dana, a characteristic enhanced every time they appear in a new and even more deliberately tasteless costume by Nicole Garbett. Their two main songs “I’m So Over Men” and “Fifteen Minutes” are so catchy, have such clever lyrics and are performed by Stern and Fulgenzi with such verve they both become major showstoppers.

As James Prince, Lewis Asquith is tall, dark and outwardly bland enough to be a mayoral candidate. Yet, when he is with Robbie an inner spark glows that both reveals Prince’s inner nature and why this inner nature is hard for others to perceive. His duet with Robbie, “Gypsies of the Ether” about being “intimate strangers” who met online, is a gorgeous song and Asquith and Bayer perform it with a restrained passion that only makes it more effective. Asquith also has a delicately reflective duet with Tori Hargreaves as Prince’s fiancée Marilyn, “Remember Us”, where each recalls the past in different ways – Marilyn referring to the past as presaging the future, Prince referring to the past as a time that is over.

In other roles Christopher Coleman makes Lord Bellingham justifiably angry at Robbie but ultimately pitiable as a man who thinks that money can buy love. Ewan Gillies plays Prince’s controlling campaign manager William George as a nasty, cynical man who is revealed as the show’s real villain. We emphasize with Melissa Rose as George’s secretary who has to put up with his constant insults and harassment.

Stiles ingeniously achieves as wide range of musical effects as any orchestra for any West End musical from a band consisting of only two keyboards, guitar and drums. The show uses an unconventional alley staging with the audience placed at either narrow end of the playing area. This helps convey the notion that we are on Old Compton Street while Jack Weir’s imaginative lighting takes us not only outside on the street but inside laundrettes, campaign rooms, ballrooms and discos. One of the many fine songs of the show is “It’s Hard to Tell” sung by Robbie and Velcro and eventually the whole cast. The subject is that nowadays you can’t tell anymore who’s gay, straight or bi and, more importantly, no one rational seems to care. 

This open point of view and the uplifting ending for the characters we care most about makes Soho Cinders a feel-good musical that is not mindless but mindful of the importance of self-acceptance. So effervescent is the show’s ending that if you feel like dancing with the cast after the finale, go ahead. This is a small-scale musical with a big heart. I’d sooner see it again than dozens of large-scale musicals now playing in the West End.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive. 

Photos: (from top) Luke Bayer as Robbie and Millie O’Connell as Velcro; Luke Bayer as Robbie and Lewis Asquith as James Prince; disco scene with Luke Bayer as Robbie and Millie O’Connell as Velcro (centre); Michaela Stern as Clodagh and Natalie Harman as Dana. © 2019 Pamela Raith Photography. 

For tickets, visit charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.