BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 3rd December, 2015
Not as commonly performed as a pantomime (everyone else seems to be doing Aladdin or Peter Pan this year) Beauty and the Beast has become irrevocably influenced by the Disney version. Audiences expect to see certain things – this new stab at the familiar tale by Iain Lauchlan hits the nail on the head to deliver a traditional panto that adheres to the plot and satisfies in almost all areas.
Lauchlan also directs and plays Dame Clarabelle Crumble – evidently he is a master of the genre. A lively script with corny and cheeky gags in abundance, a spirited performance and an eye for detail; Lauchlan brings all of these to the party. Things get off to a dark and dramatic start with the selfish Prince (Charlie Bowyer) abusing peasants and ending up transformed into the Disneyesque beast. Lauchlan handles the drama as deftly as the traditional panto skits and keeps the plot rattling along, with diversions along the way for a slosh scene in a bakery, for example. The Dame is aided and abetted by her son Willy Crumble (Craig Hollingsworth) opening the door for Willy jokes by the bucketful. It’s cheeky but never smutty and keeps the adults laughing as much as the kiddies. Hollingsworth is clearly in his element here. Willy is a kind of Buttons figure, suffering the pangs of unrequited love for Beauty, and is generally responsible for most of the broader laughs and bouts of silliness. The pantomime force is strong in these two.
Jessica Niles is the eponymous Beauty, vivacious and confident – she has more to do in the second act, which gives her opportunity to demonstrate her sweet singing voice. Charlie Bowyer’s Beast is scary, making us all jump out of our seats a couple of times, but we grow to like him as he struggles to find compassion. His singing voice is deep and rich – a pity their duet is a bit nondescript.
Andrew Gordon-Watkins is a commanding villain, the vainglorious Maurice (a version of Gaston from the film). He’s a great deal of fun with his posturing and posing – we enjoy disliking him and here’s where we run into trouble. Our loyalties are torn between him and the Beast, so when Maurice asks us to cheers along with him “We’re coming for you, Beastie” I don’t feel like it. By this point, I quite like the Beast and I don’t know whose side I’m supposed to be on. It would be better if we were shouting against Maurice’s plan.
Maurice is supported by dim-witted sidekick Dork, played by an energetic and expressive Blake Scott. Again, we enjoy him immensely but we shouldn’t be expected to be on his side.
There is strong support from Declan Wilson as Beauty’s father – indeed it falls to him to carry most of the dramatic weight of the plot, which is no mean feat when he is surrounded by such silliness. Choreographer Jenny Phillips also appears as the Enchantress, who features as our narrator, linking scenes and spelling things out. (Enchantress/spelling things out… suit yourself). Her team of dancers (a few pros and a company of local children) have plenty to do, appearing as villagers, weird creatures in the castle, a pack of wolves, and so on.
It all takes place on an impressive set, designed by Mark Walters, which has elements of fairy-tale castle and pop-up story book to it. The costumes are bright and extravagant; production values are high – it’s the Belgrade’s biggest show of the year.
Apart from a couple of weak musical numbers (I mean the material not the performance) the quality doesn’t flag. This is an excellent pantomime, steeped in traditions that still work, and fresh and funny enough to keep you grinning long after it’s finished.