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Beauty and the Beast

by on 11 December 2021

Magical Morality Tale

Beauty and the Beast

by Ciaran McConville, after the story by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve

Rose Original, Rose Theatre Kingston until 3rd January 2022

Review by Mark Aspen

Wild and desolate places, like high mountains, can be places of dread, apprehension and fear.  Such a place is the setting of Kingston’s Rose Theatre’s retelling of a much retold fairytale.  Set in the high Savoy Alps between France and Italy, Beauty and the Beast represents an inaccessible place, and by metaphorical extension, inaccessible places in the human nature.   As an allegory, this would have great impact 250 years ago, but would it in the self-congratulatory cynical world of the twenty-first Century? 

Before this all sounds too heavy and analytical, you can be reassured that this is a show that all members of the family will enjoy.  Younger schoolchildren will find it exciting, once they have gritted their teeth or the scary bits, and it is indeed a gripping and enthralling show or all.  The Rose is following its tradition of eschewing pantos for its Christmas offering and instead presenting an experience embodying magic and mystery … whilst gently spilling in meaning (the thing critics are supposed to look for).

The story of Beauty and the Beast is generally accredited to Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve and her editor Jeanne-Marie de Beaumont, both members of les précieuses, ladies of Louis XIV’s extensive court who held exclusive literary salons.  The gist of the story, however, has roots that stretch back to antiquity.   Specially written for The Rose, Ciaran McConville’s version is inspired by these sources, and indeed uses Villeneuve and Beaumont as place names in his retelling.

McConville’s Beauty and the Beast is at heart a morality tale, but a jolly complex one at that.  In the tale’s denouement, we find that Bella’s father is motivated by power, manifest in money; The Beast by justice, manifest in rage; and Bella (Beauty of the title) by love, manifest in kindness.   On the way we examine various societal, political and philosophical issues ranging from family values to climate change.  Moreover, there is a compare and contrast exercise between the mores of the 1740’s and the 2020’s.

The Rose Original’s imaginative production brings together the Rose Youth Theatre (the Purple Cast on press night) and skilful professional principals working in tandem to create a multifaceted family show.  The Youth Theatre actors all have substantial parts in the show, and play their roles with infectious zeal.

The theatrical concept is to have the eighteen century action part narrated by twenty-first century observers, who may also steer the plot and even become part of the action.  They are rather like a Greek chorus plus-plus, but take part as individuals.   This did lead to some awkwardness with the audience at first, trying to unravel who was who, what and when, but they soon warmed to the concept and it became an absorbing idea.  Trying to corral past attitudes within today’s very different views could have become tedious, but to the contrary it formed the basis of a lot of the humour in the play.   Incidentally none of this seemed to bother the children in the audience, who were captivated by the physicality of the show and the visual imagery.

Designer, Frankie Bradshaw’s figurative set, and the imaginative light design of Emma Chapman forms an atmospheric setting, one moment foreboding, the next threatening.  An attic room with peeling wallpaper, furnished with a partly made bedstead and piles of suitcases, opens to reveal aspects of the industrialised town of Villeneuve, the alpine forests, or the interiors and gardens of the Chateau de Beaumont.  The galleries beyond show the chateau’s many rooms with desks, lamps and tables, abandoned yet preserved, as if they were eerie museum pieces.  Clamped to the gallery rails, long ladders, whose stiles and rungs light up, represent mountain paths and passes.

A preamble introduces the melange of period and modern characters and their interaction is signified in Peter Todd’s inventive costume design in which many characters wear clothing partly of the other’s era, or of an indeterminate period.  The action opens to the eighteenth birthday party for Bella, daughter of the most prominent and most wealthy personage in Villeneuve, the industrialist Francesco.  A wide cross-section of the townsfolk are present, giving us chance to discover the company and its singing and dancing skills, to the fantastic, in all senses of the word, music and song of Eamonn O’Dwyer.  Choreographer, Aimee Leigh creates visually interesting set-pieces.  Confusingly off-kilter, though, is the idea of having the people of this town on the French-Italian border speak in Mockney. 

Having discovered that Francesco has some sinister secrets that he wishes to keep hidden, such as a strange potted rosebush that he forbids his daughter to go near, Bella now manages to see his hand that he has kept covered at all times.  It is hideously deformed with tangled vegetable growths sprouting from it.  Francesco is seriously ill, and Bella, who loves her widowed father, resolves to go up into the mountains to find a cure.  All are aghast, and warn her of The Beast who lives in the mountains.

Amelia Kinu Muus is a versatile performer in drama and musical theatre, and the role of Bella gives her ample opportunity to use her skills.  She sings “Poor Little Rich Girl” in a lovely smooth singing voice, and well portrays the mixture of innocence and fearless determination that is Bella.   The widely experienced Shakespearean actor Oliver Senton plays Francesco as a fiercely obsessive plutocrat.  The burden of the secrets his character hides are evident in his agitated body language and gruff voice, although the occasional easing of the gruffness might have rounded the character more. 

Slipping away from her home by night, the first major physical barrier that Bella encounters is a broad wild forest.   The red-eyed wolves that come out of the dark certainly gave the heebie-jeebies to the children in the audience, and to many of the adults.  Then the eclectically clad Guardian of the Forest appears, armed with a blunderbuss.   This post has been given to Felice, who happened to have been at school with Bella, before her father removed her.  Felice is none too bright and has been dubbed “an apple-headed blink-hard”.  Amy Lawrence, one of the talented Purple Cast, is outstanding in role of Felice, giving an energetic performance whilst putting across the character’s dull-wittedness.   Impressed by her knowledge of plant taxonomy and pharmacology, Felice reluctantly agrees to help Bella cross the forest to the mountain pass at the Val de Beaumont.  However, he is unnerved when they hear ghostly sounds of children crying; then he abandons her when she lies injured after a fall from a high crag.  It is The Beast who rescues her.

Far from being the only soul, apart from The Beast, in the Chateau de Beaumont, Bella finds other lost creatures.  These include an acquisitive Jay, who seems to have studied Proudhon, in a charming harlequin-like costume, who is nimbly played by Georgia Anderson (Purple Cast) in a studied exposition of the bird’s movements, but again bizarrely with a strong Celtic accent.  Appearing from their never-ceasing nightly chores of cleaning the chateau is the family of Heureux the butler, his wife Rousette the housekeeper, and his children, all dressed in dazzling white.   In a truly magical moment they all beautifully sing “Underneath the Stars” beneath a slowly descending array of bright lightbulbs.  This is a simple and inspired effect, as is the garden of coloured flowers that we later discover in the chateau’s purlieus.

Paula James, who plays Rosette, has a delightfully velvety jazz mezzo voice.  She also doubles as Marguerite, in a finely differentiated role.  Marguerite is the wife of René, a roguish tradesman in the town, the father of Felice.  When Francesco offer one thousand Francs for the rescue of Bella from The Beast, he encourages Felice “to use his nous” to trick his way onto the rescue party.  Daniel Goode also doubles as René.  Heureux is gentle kind and soft-spoken, René a hard-edged opportunist with a coarse manner.  In Goode’s depictions it is hard to tell that it was the same actor, although he is slightly helped by René’s rather outré wig.  Goode and James work well as the pair of contrasting married couples, for they are clearly both very experienced performers. 

At the climax, the Chateau de Beaumont is stormed by Francesco’s followers and a fight ensues.  Then in the wounding of both, the true nature of Francesco and The Beast are finally revealed.  Stanton Wright has the unenviable task of portraying The Beast, which involves spending a lot of the play lumbering around grunting.  But Wright gets the nub of his character: the physically is there, but so is the compassion that brings us to empathise with The Beast, such that his metamorphosis into a handsome young man seems quite natural.  

The twenty-first Century narrator-facilitators, headed by Jacques (Tom Hardman of the Purple Cast), have quite an input in this final battle, as they have had to a lesser extent all along.  The difference in attitude between then and now is heavily underlined, no more so than by Jasmin (Jaz) who epitomises “yoof”.  She calls Francesco “dude” and spits out clichés like “misogynist”.  Boy, has she got Attitude!  The character is as aggravating as sand in your socks, but lively actress Amelie Abbott (Purple Cast) has it to a tee and really socks it to ‘em.

So, the compare and contrast exercise between that 280 year gap in manners and way of life is explored with much implied philosophising.  It is however heartening to know that in a trio of human expressions, love still comes out tops.

But, if you are going to see Rose Theatre’s Beauty and the Beast, don’t fret about the moralising.  Director Lucy Morrell has given it light touch.  It is unlike any retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story that you will get in the cinema or the pantomime.  Here is a show that is a visual joy and totally engaging, a magical story for children and an exciting adventure for all.  

Mark Aspen, December 2021

Photography by The Other Richard

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