A historic tale sitting at the very heart of Christmas shows and pantomime. Join us in the spotlight with a cast of literary and narrative heroes and villains.
Advertising card for the pantomime, Cinderella, or Harlequin and the Magic Pumpkin and the Great Fairy of the Little Glass Slipper, Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 1864. Collection of Victoria & Albert Museum.
The Little Glass Slipper
Most pantomime tales didn’t begin life designed for the stage. Many stories which fall into a pantomime trope originated in the form of folk tales, nursery rhymes or even cautionary tales for children. Over time, across Europe, but specifically in the United Kingdom, these stories have been adapted for the stage and most commonly performed at Christmas.
Cinderella, retold by C S Evans, 1919. Illustrations by Arthur Rackham. Collection of British Library. Image released under Creative Commons. Photo: British Library
The earliest references to Cinderella’s story go as far back as ancient Greece. More recent literary versions appear in French, German and Italian, with the first English translation from French of ‘Cinderilla’ or ‘The Little Glass Slipper’ completed in 1729 from Charles Perrault’s version ‘Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre ‘. Other well known versions include Grimms Brother Fairy Tales in the early 19th Century, featuring a vengeful Cinderella (Ashenputtel) and violent sisters.
Cendrillon, Gustave Dore (1832 - 1883) Photo: WikiArt
Early written versions of Cinderella often appeared as chapbooks. ‘Chapbooks were sold by travelling salesmen, or ‘chapmen’, who carried wares around the country. Chapbooks were usually small, flimsy, between eight and twenty pages long, and could cover subjects ranging from household advice to physics to fairy tales.’ (Source: British Library)
Cinderella first appeared on stage in the early 19th Century, following Perrault’s version which was the first to introduce the concept of a pumpkin coach and the fairy godmother. These new themes ran alongside the older idea of the glass slipper.
Cinderella in different guises
The story of Cinderella has appeared across myriad art forms. Cinderella first appeared as a pantomime during the Victorian era, at a time when the passion for staged comedy was at an all time high. With its first performance on stage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1804, pantomimes became a firm mainstay of the Victorian calendar. With pantomimes typically beginning on Boxing Day, and following a traditional 'Autum Drama', pantomimes have become indellibly linked to Christmas without explicity referencing it as a central plot point.
Illustration from a Cinderella production, performed on stage at The Lyceum, December 1918. Collection of Victoria & Albert Museum.
Far from unique to Pantomime and Christmas plays, Cinderella continues to be regularly adapted for ballet, opera and screen and performed across the world in multiple languages.
Adelphi Theatre, c. 1875. A satiric mezzotint illustration depicting a jury of the lead characters from the popular pantomimes of the time, featuring Cinderella. The jury preside over a covern of witches on trial at the court. In the background, a live theatre audience look on. Creator unknown. Collection of Victoria & Albert Museum.
The highly successful 1955 Rogers and Hammerstein musical for Broadway was the duos' only musical written specifically for television, and drew inspiration from the 1950 Disney film of the same name thereby bringing Cinderella to an even broader audience.
A 1957 photo from the Rogers & Hammerstein live broadcast of Cinderella, adapted from their musical version of Cinderella, featuring Julie Andrews. Photo via breakingcharacter.com (Richard Rodgers, Julie Andrews and Oscar Hammerstein II (CBS/Emil Romano)
A King's Theatre Southsea production of Cinderella. Photo: PantoArchive
Cinderella as a film and musical for a global audience only served to grow its popularity as an enduringly relevant pantomime. In the last 10 years alone, there have been multiple film adaptations and for 2021, a new musical adaptation for the West End produced by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Press relase images to accompany the 1957 Walt Disney film, Cinderella. Image via Heritage Auctions
Cinderella continues to be regularly referenced in songs, artworks and as a shorthand for fairy tales, make-believe and the symbolism of transformation, change and magic.
‘Cinderella’, Joseph Edward Southall, 1893-5. Watercolour on paper, laid with card (54 x 39cm) Image released under Creative Commons. Photo: Tate
Costumes & Set Designs
Elaborate set designs for Cinderella often feature a key number of scenes from within the traditional story. There is a scene depicting Cinderella, mournful and alone as she cleans and is chastised by her stepsisters and stepmother. A domestic scene, this is often dark, miserable and symbolic of Cinderella's hopeless life at that point. As Cinderella meets her fairy godmother and is transformed ready to go to the ball, set pieces and costumes become every more jubilant and decorative.
Set design for 2008 production of Cinderella at Hall for Cornwall depicting the lavish ballroom, scene for the all important departure of Cinderella as the clock strikes midnight and Cinderella loses her glass slipper. Collection of Hall for Cornwall.
A set design for La Cerenentola (an operatic version of Cinderella) by Oliver Messel for Glyndebourne Opera, c. 1953. Collection of Victoria & Albert Museum.
Early costumes for Cinderella draw direct parallels to costumes from Commedia Dell'Arte, and indeed characters from the 16th Century Italian performances appear as named characters in early versions of Cinderella. Harlequin featured regularly in early productions.
Harlequin, the character in his distinctive costume and a regular character in early productions of Cinderella. This is another example of the Commedia Dell'Arte's direct influence over British pantomime dress and characterisation. Image from the Harry Beard Collection, Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Detailed examples of costumes from productions of Cinderella performed by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House can be found in their Online Collection.
Elves costume, from the Drury Lane Design Collection by Attilio Comelli, 1905. Collection of Victoria & Albert Museum.
Characters & their actors
As pantomimes continued to grow in popularity during the Victorian period, another perculiarly Victorian, sentimental habit also grew in popularity. This ran in parallel to the relative liberation of theatres and their resulting casts becoming the celebrities of their time. Cartes de Visite, or calling cards, were a visual business card in a sense. A staged photo mounted to a stiff card, these were used to share among friends as a memento of a relationship or a visit. Acting as a precursor to headshots within the theatre industry, cartes de visite are a useful tool to understand the costume trends and habit of male actors taking on the role of women and women playing the role of boys (Buttons in Cinderella is a good example).
Photograph of Minnie Mario as the Prince with Kate Vaughan in the title role of Cinderella at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, c 1883. Collection of Victoria & Albert Museum.
Cinderella at Hall for Cornwall
A detail from Alan Kitching's Performance Timeline triptych, commissioned for Hall for Cornwall, 2021 with thanks to National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Cinderella is a perennial favourite at Hall for Cornwall and theatres across the country. In fact only Aladdin can draw close in terms of the nation’s most popular pantomime. A guaranteed favourite with audiences, the story provides an uplifting journey, a quest for justice and ultimately, a tale of true love for our heroine – something that our 2021 audiences are surely ready for!
Since Hall for Cornwall opened in 1997, Cinderella has been featured as a Christmas show three times in 2002, 2008 and 2013.
Audience feedback for the 2013 production of Cinderella.
Cinderella, 1998, Hall for Cornwall. Production shot from Collection of Hall for Cornwall.
Cinderella in 2021 marks a shift in tone. Rather than this performance working as a traditional pantomime, the performance references the original story with some of the specific heritage events which have taken place during the many lives our City Hall has had. The Rock N Rhythm Competitions of the 1960s and 1970s at City Hall are woven into Cinderella (Ashley’s) journey to musical stardom.
Souvenir programme from the 2013-14 production of Cinderella. Collection of Hall for Cornwall