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Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 11 December)

It’s proving to be the most popular pantomime story this Christmas. Chris Hannon has come up with yet another version of the Beauty and the Beast story for Karen Simpson’s production. We’re vaguely in the Middle Ges where the villagers are torn between half-believing the stories about a beast terrorising the old abbey gardens and working out how to exploit this as a tourist attraction.

Belle (Louise Olley) has been selected (though of course she doesn’t know it yet) by green-fingered, pink-wellie-booted Fairy Blossom (Leonie Spilsbury) to undo the curse laid on a too-selfishly preening Lord Leopold (Sebastian Hill) by the evil Elvira (Britt Lenting). All three have good voices, as does Hill, when he gets the chance.

Designs are by rebecca Lee with a fine sequence of sets and a very good costume for the beast; the mask is particularly effective. The young chorus sing and dance to fill the stage thoroughly professionally. Belle is no meek girl in Olley’s characterisation; she needs to be strong because her father is a has-been touring actor Sir Kenneth Branflakes (Martin Neely) and cake-shop proprietor Molly Muffintop (Eamonn Fleming) has her own agenda.

Fleming is a Dame very much of the no-nonsense school; he works well off the audience as does Michael Lapham as dopey Barney Muffintop. Lenting commands the stage in her numbers; musical director Ward Baker makes good use of the choice of favourite – but always appropriate to the situation numbers. Julia Cave’s choreograpy and Jake Taylor’s lighting add to the fairy-tale atmosphere. There’s good use of amplified sound at atrategic moments by Andy Hinton.

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury st Edmunds until 15 January. Check the theatre’s website (theatreroyal.org) for performance times.

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Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 8 December)

This year’s seasonal production boasts another of Andrew Pollard’s intelligently ear-engaging scripts; this time he and director Eleanor Rhode have tweaked the familiar story to produce what one might describe as pared-down panto. The format works very well, with a predominantly schools audience at the performance which I saw being thoroughly engrossed in the story’s nuances.

We’re in fin de siècle Paris. Spice merchant M Marzipan (Neil Stewart) needs to replenish his stock of sugar urgently, but he lacks the cash to do so until his ship (literally) comes home. In the meantime his younger daughter Soufflé (Jill McAusland) is spending money at luxury boutiques regardless, while his sister Amorette (Arabella Rodrigo) has her nose in a book most of the time.

Also in need of sugar is sweet-vendor Betty Bonbon (Terence Frisch) – you are going to learn quite a lot of French when she’s on stage. Frisch is an experienced Dame, one who knows just how to milk an audience, whatever its age group. Stewart plays well off him, notably in the second-act slop scene – well, you try making a sugarless cake! The point is that the majority of the characters come over as people, not just types.

Manipulating the action is the nasty Spite (Hollie Cassar), a witch of the first water who can put over a nifty tap-dance as well as her songs. Trying to counter her is Charlie Cupid (Dale Mathurin), a demi-god who would rather be an ordinary mortal. As I said, there are novel twists in this version of the story. Cursed by Spite, it’s no wonder that Robbie Smith’s Beast has grown morose and vengeful.

Cleo Petitt’s sets and costumes work well, with slightly distorted angles to the Beast/Prince’s castle and a clever black-theatre sequence when Marzipan and Bonbon find themselves at the castle, thanks to Cupid. This tytpe of staging proves that you don’t necessarily need a song-and-dance ensemble or a juvenile troupe to fill the stage. After all, theatre is magic – and when more so than at Christmas?

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 312 January. Check the theatre website (watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk) for performance times.

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Filed under Pantomimes & other seasonal shows, Reviews 2016

Beauty and the Beast

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 26 October)

Northern Ballet has launched its autumn 2016 tour of artistic director David Nixon’s Beauty and the Beast in Norwich. This being a Dixon production, although much of the choeorgraphy follows classical lines – and his company has the skills to make this appear just as it should be – the story, the characterisations of the main characters and the costumes combine folk- and fairy-tale elements with more than a passing nod to the late 20th and 21st centuries.

His choice of music is equally wide-ranging. Glaunov for the more-or-less traditional finale but also the uncompromising diatonic and dissonance of Poulenc and the musical picture-painting of Bizet, Debussy and Saint Saëns. The Northern Ballet Sinfonia under John Pryce Jones fused these elements at the service of the dance. Duncan Hayler’s mirrored sets are lit by Tim Mitchell, mostly to fine effect except when reflexions dazzled the audience and left the dancers in shadow.

Dreda Blow, on the opening night, makes a charming Beauty, lyrical in both her solos and in her pas de deux with the Beast and with the Prince and strong of foot for the leaps with which Dixon has endowed the part. Her Prince – initially a self-centred primping posturer – is Giliano Contadini, supporting Blow effortlessly in their pas de deux and acting well throughout.

La Fée Magnifique (think Carabosse en pointe) is Victoria Sibson with Hannah Bateman as her beneficent counterpart Luminaire, a Lois Fuller swirl of shimmering flowing tissues. This storyline has Alfred, an ambiguous man-servant who we see first as the Prince’s valet and then as a manipulator for both Magnifique and Luminaire. Hironao Takahashi conveyed an impression of this multi-faceted master of ceremonies with just the right touch of control.

Ashley Dixon as the Beast – the Prince transformed as a result of his selfishness – is a fine characterisation as well as an athletic one, dangerous as only a feral animal can be but always suggesting that something better underlies the savagery, if only it were allowed to come to the surface. This is most apparent in the opening scenes of the second act with Beauty. He thoroughly diserved th audience’s applause at the first night curtain calls.

Beauty and the Beast is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 29 October with matinèes on 27 and 29 October. The production’s five-centre tour continues until 7 January.

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Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2016