Cinderella   Vicky Allen as Karrot, Philippa O'Hara as Cinderella and Orla Graham as Kazza in
'Cinderella'. Production photo courtesy of Brassneck Theatre Company

Like an alternative pantomime to top all other alternative pantomimes, Neil Keery's adaptation of Cinderella, directed by Tony Devlin for Brassneck Theatre Company, is unusual in every sense - and entirely the better for it. The stripped-back setting in the ballroom of Belfast's Devenish Complex, the general approach to Charles Perrault's classic story and the timely themes all combine to produce an event which is as communal as it is manic, as warm-hearted as it is high-octane and as bizarre as it is brilliant.

What Keery - also playing panto dame Fairy Up-Liquid with his usual panache - has done here is reinvent Cinderella within a social media-driven scenario. For starters, @TheHandsomePrince, played by Simon Sweeney, is, in both name and personality, an emblem of dependence on the identity one may create for themselves on Instagram, TikTok and more - a sign that this definitely isn't going to be a typical Cinderella story. And, on a small circular screen above the stage, both social media-esque imagery and the time that Philippa O'Hara's title character has to present herself to both the public and the prince at the "Big Fat Belfast Ball" are projected. She will, of course, be assisted by Conor Cupples' Buttons, and impeded by probably the most ingenious sisterly creations I have seen in years.

Those sisters would be, fittingly for a social media land, "Karens", aka Kazza and Karrot. Portrayed by Orla Graham and Vicky Allen, respectively, with scene-stealing vigour and verve, they're only the latest characters in seasonal theatre to take inspiration from the Roald Dahl catalogue - they echo Aunts Sponge and Spiker in being truly horrible, selfish people who insult one another, strive to protect privilege at all costs and emotionally abuse another family member out of possible insecurity. In the Karens, and indeed, how both Cinderella and Buttons react to the Karens' various efforts to invade their space or pass off other people's ideas as their own, Keery and the cast have really nailed the painful essence of bullying - a show of faux superiority which entirely disregards psychological pain.

Conor Cupples as Buttons, Neil Keery as Fairy Up-Liquid and Simon Sweeney
as @TheHandsomePrince in 'Cinderella'. Production photo courtesy of Brassneck
Theatre Company

This gives the always impressive Philippa O'Hara, along with Sweeney and Cupples, a chance to do some real character-building. All three, through song and dance, convey realities both in social media and in real life, where people are not merely looking to "find themselves" but are also seeking to get through the day by being as kind as possible. Yet, sooner or later, there will be a point where the bullying and foolishness goes too far - and this is where Fairy Up-Liquid comes into play to give our heroes a helping hand on the way to a happy ending of sorts and a comeuppance for the Karens fitting of the hot air they've been spouting.

But on top of all that food for thought, Cinderella is still panto, and it's still a great deal of fun. Keery's script, accompanied by Cheryl O'Dwyer's inventive choreography, Katie Richardson's impressive musical arrangements, Eamon McGill & Lyndsay Campbell's creative costuming, Cathan McRoberts' effective set design and more, is rich in wordplay and physicality both witty and laugh-out-loud with a tone and movement worthy of a swift-paced stand-up and disco. It is a show where the rewards from learning to express oneself can be found both from the efforts of the performers and those in attendance, a work clever in both concept and context. It's a true "people's panto" with heavy emphasis on audience participation of all sorts - an undisputed highlight of the season.

Simon Fallaha

Cinderella runs at the Devenish Complex, Belfast, until December 21. For more information, click here. For tickets, click here.