Steve Sutherland reviews Beauty and the Beast, Playbox Theatre, The Dream Factory, Warwick, until 30th December
“See with more than your eyes…”
Any fool knows it’s downright folly to disregard the advice of a witch, especially when it’s backed up by a chorus emanating from a magical locket. But jeepers it’s deuced hard to heed these witchy words when the visual feast laid before you is as beguiling as this new Playbox production of Beauty And The Beast.
Just as soon as you settle your derriere in your seat your peepers are seduced by a tapestry of roses, and when the enchantress appears to open the show, Esme Fleeman is such a gorgeous balletic vision in blood red, we’re hopelessly spellbound.
Uh-oh, here come mama, papa and their squabbling progeny, each introducing in turn their personal assets only to be assailed by cruel familial rebukes: “Thick!”, “Boring!” Evil”, that kind of thing. It’s as hilarious a start as I’ve ever seen and each nutty member is rapidly and richly drawn. Let’s say a quick hello to the bonkers brood. The extravagantly moustacioed Amelie Friess resplendent in a turban, is the doting, put-upon dad Jean Louis who quite fancies himself and is about to lose, regain, then lose again his fortune. Freya Phillips is the elegant mater Helene who gives birth on stage then exits this world. Ed Twyman’s Andre’s the sensible one, the public school swot obsessed with astronomy. Ethan Philips’ Phillipe is his “farting” sporty oppo, Jack Hobson’s Emile the lickle-est, lollipop-licking brat. Please don’t get me started on the daughters! The pair of ‘em are like a nightmare version of Country Life’s Girls In Pearls – wanna-be debutantes with one sole aim in their dopey minds: to marry rich, spend big and do very little. Transporting the traditional ugly sisters to new heights – or should that be depths? – of selfish skulduggery, take a bow Daisy Powell whose Marie-Claire is as delightfully dim as they come, and Jennie Beattie who achieves the darn near impossible, considering this splendid cast, by stealing scene after scene with her wonderfully monstrous piece of posh totty Veronique. This lot are so bloomin’ good I almost forgot Beauty herself, played with elegant poise by Elysia Sully, scared and determined as the action fits.
The entire cast are exquisitely costumed by Jo Fleeman and Lisa Hobson, the prevalent hue being a dazzling white which serves to elevate the spectacle into the kind of realm inhabited by, say, the occupants of Wes Anderson’s Budapest Hotel. The thematic combination of staging, lighting and dress usher us into another world where horses dash through snowbound forests pursued by packs of wolves – weirdly decked out like howling Ozzy Osbournes – and picture galleries come to life, all conveyed through breathtakingly kaleidoscopic choreography.
The pace is brisk, the presentation thrilling, and it’s laced with great comic turns. The scene when the newly impoverished fam are forced to quit the Parisian highlife for rural peasantry and swop their Christian Louboutins for smelly wellies is a symphony of aristocratic panic and pongy feet. The sizzling flirtation between Mery Sutherland’s batty Beast’s Man and Ottilie Lampitt’s dotty Beast’s Maid is richly deserving of its spontaneous ovation. Hubba bubba! You could say they were oddball but that really doesn’t do them justice. The Maid clumsily combing clumps out of Beauty’s hair and offering her botox, the Man offering to park the audience’s cars and stumbling headlong over suitcases down a flight of stairs are delectably daffy counterpoints to the darker drama unfolding.
Which brings us to Ed Buckley’s Beast, a handsome cove if ever here was one, and that’s even before his transition back to humanity. He’s sort of Jack Sparrow with horns cursed with the vocab of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. His explosive introduction had some little uns cowering and he’s full of most excellent roaring and growling, but we never lose sight of his good heart within. His wooing and winning of Beauty is not too hard to fathom, he’s more gruff cavalier than grotesque cannibal.
This B&B boasts all the fastidious hallmarks of Playbox director Emily Quash, the tale told with absolute clarity yet embroidered with marvellous diverting set pieces along the way such as the Hall of Mirrors, which, thanks to the strategic use of a phalanx of beaming silver trays, conjures up some of the eery narcotic essence of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 classic movie version, La Belle et la Bete which, believe me, is no mean feat.
This, in case you’re left in any doubt, is a very different doing than the cosy Disney singalong. There’s no Cogsworth, no Mrs Potts, no Gaston… but there’s charm and grace and giggles in the mills and trills.
I don’t know what was in that potion the witch gave Beauty to save her dying father but we sure could do with bottling up some of this invigorating splendour and silliness to see us all through the scary year ahead. In fact, I detected a distinct hesitancy in the audience at the end, as if no-one really wanted to get up and leave. Which brings us, finally, to the only bit in this superlative show that didn’t quite ring true. When Beauty says to the dying Beast that he needs to leave his fantastical castle and re-enter the real world of men, we’re thinking: are you nuts? I’d stay here if I were you Beastie Boy and, if it’s not too much of an imposition, can we stay with you too, like, forever?