A twitter of birdsong, birch trees, weeping willow and a scattering of maple leaves on stage: we are at the edge of a wood, close to a large house with garden statues and ornate urns, home to a Beast under a curse.
The mise en scène of this Tobacco Factory Theatres / New International Encounter / Cambridge Junction co-production breathes spareness and spaciousness. Nothing is overstated, everything is stripped back, there is nowhere to hide. And that’s fitting, because from beginning to end, this wonderfully elegant, witty and authentic show and its accomplished cast and creatives have nothing to hide either, and everything to be proud of.
Beauty’s two siblings (Elliot Davis and Samantha Sutherland) are the best pair of “ugly sisters” I’ve seen: acidically amusing, verbally indomitable, symphonically synchronised in their mannerisms, they are a pair of super-brats who out-brat Patsy & Edina and who will delight and appall adults, inspire children to hone their pre-Xmas whining and demanding techniques, and strike terror into the hearts of their parents. The sisters hold their meek old papa (Ben Tolley) to ransom, trundling him around in a wheelbarrow and threatening to lock him in the attic if he doesn’t come up with the goods.
Martin Bonger (Move to Stand, The Plasticine Men) provides a riveting central performance as the Beast – moving, physical and very funny in parts. Sara Lessore embodies an authentically real and good Beauty, whose ordinary down-to-earth nature is the perfect foil to Beast’s painfully over-the-top attempts to win her love.
A hilarious feast scene kicks off the second half, with Beast summoning Beauty to replays of a disastrous weekly dinner: “So how did that go, as a first date?” he asks us ironically, while soliciting much-needed good advice from happy-looking couples in a cleverly nuanced sequence of audience interaction. Anyone who loves C4’s First Date and Come Dine With Me will gobble this up.
With the lightest of touches, this ensemble spins a playful enchantment over the audience throughout. The script is lyrical, and almost as musical as the songs, with lots of cadence and colour, as well as continual laughs. Elliot Davis’ musical direction and songs are really accomplished (as is his aforementioned ugly sister). Everyone in the cast plays at least one instrument and they can all sing. Hats off to NIE’s artistic director Alex Byrne for getting everything just right in this production, and for assembling such a creative cast.
“Real beauty is on the inside, innit?” says the ugly old hag-witch who first knocks on the door of the Beast’s castle on a rainy night. And when something is truly beauteous on the inside in the theatre – in content, intention, style, performance, direction, music, words and design – that inner ‘beauty’ manifests outwardly as a truly cogent, charming and beautiful piece of work, which this show is.
If you only see one family show in Bristol this Xmas, make it this one, and be sure to book your tickets fast: it would be beastly to miss it.
Beauty and the Beast continues at Tobacco Factory Theatres until Sunday, January 14. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/beauty-and-the-beast
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