Think of Cinderella, and in common with half the people on earth – or possibly more, in these Disney times – you will see in your mind’s eye every familiar detail of what is quite possibly the world’s best known story. The good and beautiful girl condemned to a life of poverty, the wicked stepmother and ugly sisters, the fairy godmother who comes to transform her fate, the royal ball, the lost slipper, and the happy ending, when she marries her Prince; it’s one of humankind’s archetypal tales, dating back to Greek and Egyptian myths, transformed into a modern fairytale in 17th century Italy and France, and still evolving from year to year, not least through the British pantomime and Christmas show tradition.
None of this, though, is even slightly daunting to the Glasgow-based playwright Lynda Radley, who together with her husband, the composer and musician Michael John McCarthy, has created a brand new stage musical version of Cinderella for the times we live in, set to open at Dundee Rep this weekend. “It really is such a perfectly-structured story,” says Radley, “and you have to recognise and respect that, whatever you do.
“But of course, there are issues with the very traditional version of the tale, that modern writers have to confront – it’s a very patriarchal tale, the traditional story gives Cinderella very little agency of her own, and she needs a magical godmother and a Prince to save her. So we’ve preserved everything people associate with he Cinderella story – the magic and the ball and everything – but in unexpected ways; and ones that give Cinderella real goals and dreams of her own, as well as all the encounters with other characters that make up the story.”
The result is a 21st century Cinderella who is not a kitchen-maid but a dedicated young farmer, passionate about the fate of the earth and all it produces, to the point where she finds it difficult to take a break and have fun. She has friendly welly boots rather than glass slippers; and her journey, says Radley, is about how a very self-sufficient person, who has lost her much-loved mother as young child, eventually learns to share her life with others who have the same hopes and dreams.
“I grew up on a farm in the south of Ireland,” explains McCarthy, who met Radley at Cork University in 2001, “so I guess I’m drawing quite deeply on that experience with this version of Cinderella. Obviously the drive back then was to get educated and get away from the land, but now we’re all becoming more and more aware of the importance of things that farmers deal with all the time – the climate, the soil, the seasons. Lynda and I have worked very collaboratively on this – she writes the dialogue, then we both produce words that can become the song lyrics, and I write the music.
“It’s not the first time we’ve worked together – we began working collaboratively as students, and continued with that approach after we moved to Glasgow in 2004-2005. But this is our first Christmas show; and although we occasionally have to meet on the landing and fight it out, when we disagree about something, I must say it’s a been a really enjoyable process.”
“It has,” says Radley, whose work since she arrived in Scotland has ranged from her acclaimed 2004 solo show The Art Of Swimming, to major plays including Fringe First winners Futureproof (produced by the Traverse and Dundee Rep in 2011) and The Interference (2016). “Michael is a great dramaturg, and really, it’s been tremendous fun. Even our son Finn, who’s seven now, has seen the play, and given it a nod of approval. Being a playwright can be quite a solitary business, and this has reminded me how much I enjoyed the more collaborative work we did in Cork, and when we first came to Glasgow – it was the heyday of the Arches then, and we found Glasgow such a supportive and welcoming environment, at that time.”
Over the last two decades, McCarthy’s career has also flourished; he has become one of the most sought-after composers and musical supervisors in Scottish theatre, working on over 80 productions for companies in Scotland and beyond, including recent smash hits Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of) and Druid Theatre’s The Last Return, seen at the Traverse during this year’s Festival.
For now, though, he is focused on Cinderella, and the business of writing songs for a musical drama: “I really want the songs to do story work, and to move things along. I want them to be like little taxis, so that when they start the story is in one place, and by the time they finish, we’ve moved on to another stage. And that’s why collaborating closely with Lynda on the story has been so important, and so satisfying.”
As for the story itself, Radley hopes that it will combine a strong, earthy energy with the kind of magic that every good version of Cinderella needs. “We’re conscious of the great tradition of Scottish Christmas shows that reinvent traditional tales,” she says, “and so are the Rep’s artistic director, Andrew Panton, and our director, Jemima Levick. We hope we’re adding to that, with a story that’s all about roots, in every sense; it’s organic, it has a strong feeling for the seasons from spring to midwinter, and the magic comes both from Ella’s fairy godmother – who’s very much associated with her lost mother – and from the earth itself.
“What we want to show, in the end, is that everything comes from love, love for the earth, and love for one another; and that there’s nothing we can’t do when we work together. It’s a good message for this time of year; and we’re hoping it works.”
Cinderella is at Dundee Rep from 26 November until 31 December.