Beauty and the Beast
South Hill Park
Until January 3
THIS year’s South Hill Park Christmas production is a fresh take on the age-old story of Beauty and the Beast.
Bart Lee’s script is quite a radical departure from what you may know, and features all original songs created by Ron McAllister.
Forget the 1991 Disney film, this in-house production takes the tale of a beautiful young woman falling in love with an ugly monster and gives its own unique twist: you will not have seen a festive play like it before.
Traditionally, there’s no good fairy – but South Hill Park has created one to allow Brad Clapson to weave his festive magic and return as the dame. He’s the first character we meet when the show opens, ensuring that the audience get a quick laugh before the singing and dancing gets underway.
We soon meet the beautiful Belle (Faye Ellen), who has a panto horse that quickly gains the ability to speak before being magically transformed into a man (Zut Alors, played by Tom Pepper). He fulfils the Buttons role in the show, Belle’s loyal companion.
The first act is spent setting the scene, and it’s not until virtually the end that we get to properly meet the Beast (Matthew Houston) – he’s kept in the shadows for his early appearances.
He is presented not as a Beast but a gentleman who happens to look a bit ugly. He’s not a scary animal, but can be a comic foil. If you remember the Not The Nine O’Clock news sketch about Gerald the gorilla (‘Wild? I was livid!’) you’ll get the idea.
Norbere (Craig Rhys Barlow) is the Gaston figure: full of himself, a liar and a cheat. Rhys Barlow gets the measure of this vain man just right but could do with more moments to reinforce this or make him the butt of the joke.
Tempering the Good Fairy is the bad: Gobby (Heather Wilson) is the one responsible for turning the Prince into the Beast and appears to relish her role as the wicked one. She quickly gets the young audience to boo and hiss at her appearance, but at times it feels that her performance is being reined in by the the direction.
The cast are all talented and work well at interacting with the audience. Faye Ellen is exceptional as Belle, and Brad has some good gags, especially at The Lexicon’s expense.
Also important to mention are the young cast of dancers who add so much to the scenes.
The set is a stunning triumph: a circular wooden set that looks like a hand-crafted festive ornament from a German Christmas market. It is folded, opened, moved and twisted round to create a multitude of different settings, all believable. This was especially so during the fight between Norbere and the Beast.
The pacing of the festive show will no doubt be tightened as the run goes on. There are some terrific songs, some neat routines but they don’t always flow or appear in the right place. For example, a rip-roaring, fantastic handclapping rock ‘n’ roll number is a high octance opener to the second half … while people are eating ice cream and unable to clap along.
Crucially, pleasing this old curmudgeon, the young audience loved it. Those of us with long memories will remember Crackerjack (Crackerjack!) on BBC TV, with the Scouts and Guides in the audience, all wearing their uniforms. Press night was no different: the Guides and Brownies were out in force, joining in with every boo and hiss, shouting the behind yous at all the right moments and ensuring they jumped up for the song at the end.
And that’s what it’s all about: South Hill Park has delivered a family show that the youngsters will love and help make their Christmas magical.
The show runs at South Hill Park until January 3 and there are some adult-only performances planned. For more details, visit the arts centre’s website.