Windmill Theatre Co. Dunstan Playhouse. 28 May 2022
Don’t get invested in the title of this production; the story is used as a vehicle and to be honest, bears little reference to the original fairy tale. Here the stepsisters don’t treat (Cinde)Rella like a servant, stepmother is really quite lovely, the whole family is very close and respectful of each other.
Having got that out of the way, the narrative follows the singing trio of sisters and their manager mum. The haunting opening, evoking the sirens or spirit guides of myth or legend, gives way to a full on, contemporary production, as the sisters’ audition for ‘Is This Talent’. No explanation is required for how this works (and how sad is that?); Rella (Carla Lippis), Afa (Fez Faanana) and Sika (Thomas Fonua) strut their way across the stage in a rollicking performance that wins approval from the judges. For one of them anyway. In a rather didactic fashion, the judges make clear they don’t want ‘the ugly ones’; Rella reluctantly leaves her sisters and goes to forge a career with Prince Charming Records.
The search for identity is spurred as mum (Elaine Crombie) confesses that all the children are adopted. While she is a First Nations woman, Afa and Sika are Samoan and Rella (so named after being found under an umbrella) is Italian. And so begins a fascinating journey for all, told with humour and pathos, and no small amount of soul searching. That Afa and Sika are played by drag queens plays perfectly into the Samoan culture of the Fa’afafine, Samoa’s third gender.
The cast work well together, taking up some dual minor roles, with Crombie’s turn as a club bouncer a highlight. There are moments of great comedy, accentuated by drag humour and generational jokes about the use of social media. Fairy tales get a bit mangled as the ‘mirror, mirror’ enters the fray, adding to the beauty/not beauty narrative, and the fatuity of physical vanity.
This being a premiere, the production still needs a bit of tightening, and this most shows in the focus of the message. It can be a little disjointed, and sometimes misses the target audience. It may be there are simply too many inputs into the show and it becomes a case of too many ideas. Having said that, this is a brilliant reassurance to teens of the commonality and normalising of difference in its many forms.
Faanana and Fonua are both credited as co-creators of the show, alongside Windmill’s Associate Director Sasha Zahra and playwright Tracey Rigney. Their experience as dancers comes to the fore with some very cool choreography, culminating in an outstanding Samoan dance in full costume. Chris Petridis’s lighting design reflects the hipness of the production, but it should be noted that some of the placement is very ‘in your eyes’.
As in all good tales, there is a happy ending with the distraught Rella being found again under her umbrella, and the de rigueur big finale. Much of this will go straight to the teenage heart; well done Windmill, on tackling a difficult subject in a language they can understand.
When: 28 May to 4 June
Where: Dunstan Playhouse
Recommended for ages 12+