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Beauty and the Beast

by on 17 December 2021

Music, Magic and Multifarious Malarkey

Beauty and the Beast

by Eric Potts

Imagine Theatre at The Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield Halls, Croydon until 2nd January

Review by Mark Aspen

Now, here’s something!  I just heard someone on the radio describe panto as “a post-Freudian discourse on the transformative nature of inclusion and on societal barriers to equality issues”.  Er, umm … Oh no it’s not!  Panto is a great bit of knock-about family fun with a nice happy-ever-after story thrown in; and the usually silent audience get a chance to join in.  All together … Oh yes it is!  The audience at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, children of all ages from 3 to 111, would without a doubt agree.  Their socially distanced, flow-tested voices were loud and clear … well perhaps just loud from behind their masks.  (By-the-way, the age range is from the Shout-out, but it turned out that the upper limit was a granny who was Ill.)

There is in fact plenty for the audience to shout about in Imagine Theatre’s Beauty and the Beast.  For a start, they get two comic characters for the price of one, in the comedy duo, Dick & Dom; or as the rest of cast are prone to address them, “Ant-‘n’-Dec”.  If that is a wind-up, these two don’t need winding up.  They are electric.  Maybe it is to compensate for the lack of a dame.  (There seems to have been a national shortage of Dames this season.  Maybe they are keeping the poor old dears away from the dreaded Omi-Khron.)

After the straight-in seismic start, in which we are invite to “Consider yerself at ‘ome”, in a song and dance overture by the energetic ensemble,  Fairy Fairfield introduces herself, in rhyming couplets of course, as all good panto fairies.  She tells us we are in Chateau Briande, then helpfully goes on to fill in the backstory.  This is very useful as the plot of Beauty and the Beast has so many variants, and it seems a popular story this theatre season.  Most are loosely based on a 1740 version by ladies-who-lunched at the French court of the Sun King, but the story is much older than that.  As Fairy Fairfield reminds us, it is a “tale as old as time”.

Of course we know that Fairy F and Dick & Dom are going to be the protectors, in their own ways, of Belle, our heroine.  And there has to be a baddy.  Enter Benedict Bourbon, debt-collector for Prince Pierre, a recluse who lives in the chateau on the hill, and who owns just about everything hereabouts.  Bourbon is forceful, self-centred and totally and utterly vain.

Nic James plays Bourbon’s vanity to the hilt.   “I am beautiful” he sings.  James is tall and muscular and his leather-clad Bourbon is exotically coiffured and swivel-hipped, like a turbocharged Elvis.  In contrast Alice Oberg’s Belle is demure, modest and innocent, but that innocence hides a resilient determination, and one thing she is very determined about is to resist the none-too-subtle advances of Bourbon.

Bourbon has a sidekick, Ashcroft, a myopic sycophant as depicted by the nimble Jon Clayton.  Ashcroft is much the scapegoat for Bourbon, who is not very bright.

Belle has Dick & Dom, and they manage to ensnare Bourbon by gambling on a game like a cross between Simple-Simon-Says and a Yes-No Interlude, involving the phrase “mushy peas”, which wins them forty Francs, enough to cover the outstanding rent that Bourbon has come to collect on behalf of the Prince.  However, Dick & Dom are stony broke and so go to work for the Prince at the Chateau.

Fairy Fairfield has a good line in magic, but she is not entirely omnipotent, witness her attempts to change the seasons on the Path Through the Woods, a good excuse though to demonstrate the skills of Lighting Designer, Jamie Corbidge and his technical magic.  Elizabeth Ayodele makes an attractive and engaging Fairy Fairfield, utterly, well … charming.

And talking of charming and magic, Dick & Dom, well known as TV personalities, show considerable aptitude as stage magicians.   We see them hilariously as tiny homunculi in a Punch and Judy kiosk, their voices falsetto in line with their diminutive stature, courtesy of Sound Designer Rachel Moule’s pitch-shift technology.   A version of the three-cup trick sees a disembodied head moved around under upturned buckets.  (On press night a malfunction cause one of them to hit his nose coming through the hole under the buckets, causing much unintended laughter from audience and cast alike.)   Most impressive, however, is a trick in which a series of boxes are assembled on stage and then one of the duo appears inside the full stack.  

Nevertheless, Fairy Fairfield has an impressive magic trick when she tests the testy and refractory Prince Pierre, who she confronts at the gates of Chateau Briande, disguised as Mrs Mysterious Old Lady, begging shelter, then offering him a mystical rose.  When he refuses, she waves the magic wand to transform him into The Beast, from which form he can only be released by love.  Rest assured that, in true panto fashion, the melodrama of this transmogrification is not underdone.

Belle’s widowed father is Professor Potage, an inventor and the local baker.  We never see the inventions, but the bakery appears as patisserie that he delivers to the Chateau, only to be incarcerated by the Prince, now The Beast, who wants nobody to know of his disfigured appearance.   However, when Belle appears at the Chateau, looking for Dad, The Beast is captivated by her, and accepts her sacrifice to be a hostage in her father’s stead.

Derek Griffiths portrays Professor Potage as a good-hearted and lovable eccentric.  Griffiths is a very well-known and prolific television actor, an award-winning composer, and lauded Shakespearean actor, but ranging over many genres of the drama, now effortlessly including panto. 

On the rooftops of the Chateau, Dick & Dom encourage each other in song to “Always Look on the Bright Side” of their imprisonment, whilst elsewhere Belle is bending a sympathetic ear to The Beast, who explains their confinement.  “I don’t want the world to see me, for I know they wouldn’t understand”.   The Beast’s wooing of Belle is not repulsed, and their growing mutual tenderness was actually quite moving, an emotion not normally associated with panto.  He attributes his previous bad-natured rejection of humanity to his boyhood grief, as a result of the death of his parents at a young age.  (This detail of the story never seems to ring true, but then again it smacks of the nature of a certain modern real-life Prince.) 

Bourbon’s jealousy gives him an excuse to usurp the Prince, under the guise of rescuing Belle from The Beast; cue lots of pyrotechnics and stage fighting (directed by Lisa Connell) and the Baddy’s come-uppance.  

Naturally, Belle’s love for The Beast is redemptive and her kiss leads to another melodramatic transformation, reversing the evil and transmuting the base Beast into the golden Prince.  Acting the Prince-Beast is a difficult job, the emotional and physical journey from bitter young man, to remorseful beast, and then to the redeemed humane bridegroom.   Danny Whitehead, an accomplished music theatre performer, tackles the task adroitly.  Plus he looks the part, his sparkling blue eyes and blond hair complementing the looks of Alice Oberg’s Belle.  Incidentally I thought our Belle in wedding dress rather resembled the young Queen Victoria in hers.  Maybe that’s what they mean when they say she rang a Belle! (Sorry for that one.)

All the best pantomimes have lots of music, song and dance, and this one has them all.  Musical Director, Daniel Dibdin takes the keyboard and Mike Osborne has a busy time on drums and miscellaneous panto percussion.   All the cast sing and dance with gusto, but the heavy-lifting fell to the Ensemble comprising Ayodele and Clayton, joined by Caitlin Gudaitis and Daniel Teague.  Choreographer Graeme Pickering makes exciting and attractive use of the Ashcroft Theatre’s stage. 

The expected pantomime routines, eagerly awaited by the audience ready for their bit, are there, including If I Were Not with Prince Pierre, a shameless excuse for slapstick.  Lots of “oh, no-yes, it is-isn’t”s and “behind you”s and the children’s cue is “Bogies”, Dick & Dom’s catchword.  I did pass on the proffered Bogies tee-shirt, but that didn’t have one in my size.  Dick & Dom (Richard McCourt and Dominic Wood) propel the audience interaction.  They are multi-BAFTA winning performers and more than active on the live stage, but are completely at home with panto.  Six years ago they starred in Birmingham in a production of Cinderella, thought to be the world’s biggest ever pantomime. 

A post-Freudian discourse?  Who knows?   Director Stacey Haynes knows pantomime though.  Her Beauty and the Beast is that knock-about family fun, but with music, magic and multifarious malarkey thrown in.  Take the children, but leave the socio-pyschobablists at home.

Mark Aspen, December 2021

Photography by Paul Clapp at Limelight Studios

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