Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Beauty and the Beast’ which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme until January 29th.
There are two startling transformations in this Christmas fairy tale.
Towards the end of the play the Beast is prostrate before his mother’s statue, weak from his hunger strike and bereft of human affection. We’d seen Nicholas Richardson’s lofty monster so oft before, we are now taking for granted that this crumpled creature is as he always was. We don’t notice the subtle changes. So, when he hears Bella finally admitting that she loves him, the surprise as he sloughs off his horribleness will have school children all over Staffordshire gasping out loud at the magic; or, in adult eyes, the clever stagecraft.
The other transformation, equally magical and even more essential, takes place during the interval. The first half of the show can best be described as ‘elaborate scene setting’. After a highly dynamic and quite fearful opening of swirling red goblins, those not familiar with the original 18th Century French version that Theresa Heskins has adapted, may feel the storyline is padded and stretched out rather. Yet the crucial spark of the story, in which a father steals a red rose from the Beast’s palace, is strangely glossed over; only told, not shown.
There are many magical moments in Act 1 to captivate the kids, including a puppet Prince who somehow manages to blow out the candles on his birthday cake despite the lack of a mouth … and a bevy of jerking, robotic servants complete with metallic wigs. The fay, mechanical butler ‘Wheeliam’ is indeed on wheels. Jonathan Charles manipulates his Segway with such masterful balletic precision he will probably prompt several demanding letters to Santa. Any similarity to the name of a judge on ‘The Voice’ is doubtless intentional.
Scene stealers include Danielle Bird as the fun-filled, Welsh-sounding Goblin Queen Rajnhildre – who is more mischievous than downright wicked – and her heavy human adversary, The Warrior Queen, played by a stomping, sword-wielding Polly Lister, who roars and rampages around the stage.
It is Rajnhildre who steals the young Prince’s voice and later turns the teenager into a beast in revenge for her capture by his mother.
As Shakespeare does with Caliban, Theresa Heskins makes us wait and wait for the arrival of The Beast. We hear his rumble and see the flashing lights well before we see him … in all his menacing magnificence. He spends the play stalking the stage orunning blades – so he has to be in constant motion, which only underscores the malevolence. His face and hands are smothered in animal hair and his voice is electronically distorted. Designer Lis Evans gives him a heavy tapestry frock coat and unkempt dreadlocks to complete the arresting image.
In Act 2 the comedy comes to the fore as Bella’s sisters (Solaya Sang and Rhyanna Alexander-Davis) have great fun discussing how they should woo the wealthy Beast for themselves and how Bella should be prepared for the dinner table; the punishment for her crime being either ten years community service or being eaten.
This is also when the morality tale truly emerges, with undeniable power. We have great sympathy for the central victim, who has the heart and mind of a human, but the body of a beast; and for Rhiannon Skerritt’s superbly feisty heroine, Bella, who naturally resists him until she “looks beyond the surface” and can resist no more. In their mutual acceptance, they find contentment, which is beautifully allegorised by a floating-on-air happiness sequence. The fact that Bella is half the Beast’s height makes this all the more sentimental.
As hostilities between waring species end, so the final moral of the story is delivered, “Peace on Earth”. I came away feeling warm and satisfied and rewarded, and I reckon you will too.