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Sexy and violent, bawdy and slapstick, the RSC’s Christmas Season production of Beauty and the Beast is undoubtedly fun for all the family. There is no way that this can be described simply as a children’s show. It is a technical marvel, a fanciful narrative and an exotically charged piece of theatrical entertainment. Adults wallowed in humour that was as far distant from pantomime as walnuts are from elephant droppings. Children adored the coarseness of constant references to farting siblings and technically challenged robots. At the core, a timeless story of faith, trust and obedience, the ingredients which conjure up their own unique version of love in adversity. This show is a marvel.
The RSC main house stage is stripped bare and clad in vast sheets of pine plywood that rise to the flies. Square, solid columns of similar pine strut their stuff on either side of the stage, masking various rope, pulley and weight contraptions that hint at Victorian scenic effects — tumblecloths and arching taut bamboos, and a huge swinging cage that would be a dream in any adult or child’s playground. First used as a carriage to whisk the family into the country, it is later turned into Beauty’s regal bed and left to swing like a giant cot to lull her to sleep. These are just some of the feast of visual effects which complement this stunning production.
We are first introduced to a Chorus of balletic singer-actors who look just as though they have stepped from the set of The Matrix. These are cool dudes and dudesses, dressed all in black with shades. The costumes are a fetishist’s dream, corseted and coated, with close fitting black caps and white faces. The Chorus adopts the roles of magnificent horses or pack of menacing red-eyed wolves or dutiful servants bearing the pinkest of pink candles with ease and graceful skill.
From behind an eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment curtain are revealed the Family. Father is Jean Louis (Darren Tunstall) accompanied by his wife, Helene (Jan Pearson) and their six wayward children, Marie Claire (Beth Vyse), Veronique (Sirine Saba), Phillipe (Christian Flint), André (Daniel Tuite), Emile (Miltos Yerolemou) and of course Beauty, played with innocent charm by Karen Paullada. It is the story of this French family who fall on hard times and have to move to the country which guides this tale to its heart-wrenching conclusion.
Each member of the family is so precisely drawn, so closely studied, that adult and child alike in the audience instantly recognized the swot, the mother’s boy, the brat, the thicko, the sporty sort; all added enormous fun and laughs. We all know the story of Beauty and the Beast, and we all know that the merchant father, through his indiscretion with a rose is forced to proffer his daughter to a Beast as wife, but nothing could have prepared the audience for the semi-revealed monster who scares us when he first appears. All through the interval youngsters were gleefully reminding their parents how shocking the monster was, how horrible, how ghastly, how scary. This is a monster that really works.
Of course, the Beast, who has an uncanny resemblance to Predator in the movie and a Hannibal Lectoresque approach to mealtimes, is not all that bad, just a little rough round the edges. Gary Sefton is superb in this role and commands the stage with this larger than life character. He is ably assisted in the running of the palace by his robot servants, the Beast’s Man and the Beast’s Maid, played by Yerolemou and Saba respectively. These two mechanical misfits provide the biggest laughs from the young audience who instantly adore their innocent yet naughty humour.
Overseeing the whole adventure is the Witch, doubled by Pearson whose Mother character dies very early on in the play, the event that triggers the first disasters in the family. Pearson’s Witch is a glamorous dominatrix-like character whose strength masks her duty and sincere care for the unfortunate Beast. It is the Witch who eventually sets all things to rights and is left at peace in the Palace.
Laurence Boswell has written and directed a wonderful show. Assisted by the designs of Jeremy Herbert and the raunchy costumes of Kandis Cook, it is a visual Beast’s feast. Stuart Hopps choreographs eleven talented dancers who add to the quality of the evening’s entertainment. Join this with Mick Sands’s hauntingly evocative music which resonates with Arabian promise, and you have an immediate success. To me, the greatest compliment the RSC could have received on this opening night was the complete enraptured silence of its young audience. No shifting of seats, just open and gleeful laughter or deliciously fearful horror and a genuine love for all on stage. A huge adventure and a huge success.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004
Originally published on R&V 28-11-04
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