Soho Cinders, Union Theatre, London ★★★★

It’s safe to call 2016 as the year of Stiles and Drewe, isn’t it? With Half a Sixpence transferring into the West End from Chichester Festival Theatre (where their Travels With My Aunt also debuted), Wind in the Willows touring the UK and rumours that their adaptation of Soapdish may finally be finding its away to the London stage, suddenly the most English of musical theatre duos are everywhere.

And that includes the London fringe, as the Union Theatre stages a new production of Soho Cinders. And while the story is a gender-flipped, modern day reinterpretation of the Cinderella folk tale, it is also their most original work, relying less on original material than their more recent successes. For that reason and more, Soho Cinders has long been my favourite Stiles and Drewe musical. And a couple of minor quibbles aside, the Union’s staging only reinforces that feeling.

But while the central theme and plot structure are borrowed from our traditional theatrical representations of Perrault’s folk story, Soho Cinders is no fairy tale – although, in a sense of its delight in celebrating and gently mocking Soho’s mixed bag of sexual identities, one could say that a tale of fairies, and their friends, is exactly what it is.

Joshua Lewindon stars as Robbie, who tries to cover the rent on the launderette he runs with best friend Velcro (Emily Deamer as the lovelorn, Buttons-like best friend) by acting as a paid dinner companion to Chris Coleman’s Lord Bellingham while conducting a clandestine affair with prospective candidate for London Mayor, the charming James Prince (Lewis Asquith). Barring the road to romance and the perfect happy-ever-after are Robbie’s two ugly-hearted sisters (Michaela Stern and Natalie Harman), Prince’s scheming campaign manager (Samuel Haughton) and the small matter of Prince’s fiancée Marilyn (Lowry Walton), who is unaware of her partner’s philandering.

Director Will Keith has arranged the Union’s flexible space into a traverse arrangement, allowing for a large area for Joanne McShane’s choreography to work its charms. Unfortunately, the lack of amplification for individual cast members is particularly felt at the start of the show, with establishing lines and Drewe’s punning lyrics often getting lost to the ether as soon as a character has their back turned to half the audience. Ensemble numbers far much better, and by the second act even the solo numbers become more audible, but for those unfamiliar with Soho Cinders it takes longer than it should to become engrossed in the magical world that Stiles, Drewe and book co-writer Elliot Davis work hard to create.

But engrossing it does become. Lewindon and Deamer sparkle as the friends against the world, while Walton’s calm, determined demeanour as the wronged woman always threatens to eclipse Asquith’s two-timing Prince. As the grotesque Dana and Clodagh, Harman and Stern make for a great double act, as well as grabbing all the best lines and milking them for all they’re worth.

The first act is where the best crowd-pleasing songs are – from the uproarious ‘I’m So Over Men’ to the celebratory ‘It’s Hard to Tell’, on how hard it is to tell whether the modern man is straight or gay (“He’s hotter than wasabi / But does he love Ken or Barbie?” remains possibly my favourite Anthony Drewe lyric ever). And ‘Gypsies of the Ether’, a love song that is also a lament on the frustrations of lives conducted online, is not only beautifully arranged, but hauntingly lit, Iain Dennis’s subtle lighting complemented by the harsh illumination of mobile phone screens.

And for all that, it is the second act where the show’s more personal numbers dominate. Lewindon’s rendition of ‘They Don’t Make Glass Slippers’ illustrates why the song is one of Stiles and Drewe’s strongest ballads, while Walton and Deamer bring a sense of forlorn depth to ‘Let Him Go’.

Propelling the story along is a persistent voice-over from an (uncredited) narrator. And while this role worked in Soho Cinders’ celebrated concert outing (available on CD) with Sandi Toksvig, on stage it feels like it commits the cardinal sin of telling rather than showing. Many of the scene transition descriptions the voiceover narrates are immediately obvious anyway, and others would be better described through actions rather than words. But there are flashes of hilarious wit in the narration to counterbalance the unnecessary elements.

Indeed, the whole show hangs together so well that it is almost a surprise that it is not revived more often. And while a Southwark railway arch is not exactly Soho, the Union feels like exactly the soft of theatre in which Soho Cinders can flourish, and where it belongs. If you are after a pantomime story without a pantomime performance, you could do no better.

Soho Cinders runs until December 22. uniontheatre.biz

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