Review: Beauty and the Beast, National Theatre

“You’ve never heard a fairytale until you’ve heard one told by a fairy…”

First in an ever-increasing list of the family Christmas show market is Beauty and the Beast, currently in previews at the Cottesloe in the National Theatre. Devised and directed by Katie Mitchell with text work from playwright Lucy Kirkwood, they have reworked the traditional fairy tale into this delightful new confection aimed at girls and boys over the age of eight (and those young at heart too!)

Mitchell’s twist is to have the story presented to us by magical creatures Mr Pink and Cecile with their helper, and it is these interjections that provide much of the laughs and the interesting narrative drive whereas we might be familiar with the tale of Beauty and the Beast, we have no idea where these characters might end up. She has introduced all sorts of lovely touches to engage her audience, my favourites of which were the mind-reading machine which is used on the characters to reveal their true thoughts but is also turned on some audience members too and the shadow puppets used with the lightbox to great effect. The fast-forward and rewind features were neatly done, Gareth Fry’s exaggerated sound effects are great fun, there’s a charming moment as we all look up into the stars: it all serves to capture the attention of her audience and keep it, the children around me all loved it.

Justin Salinger acts as the main compere of proceedings as the Julian Clary-esque Mr Pink, an amusingly malevolent presence in fuschia and kitten heels, whose pantomime villainry is nicely tempered by Kate Duchêne’s kindly Cecile, his assistant who longs for the opportunity to sing a song onstage yet is constantly frustrated by Mr Pink’s empty promises. Salinger has a great warm charisma which works perfectly as he drives things forward, throwing out a couple of magic tricks, the odd burst of flame here and there, even conducting an insect orchestra and Duchêne’s middle-aged French fairy is perfectly played. The dynamic between these two is brilliant and the way in which the relationship unfolds is pleasingly complex for a children’s show. Duchêne’s dress is a thing of wonder too, richly textured and longing to be touched (as it was by some of the younger viewers as she walked past).

By comparison, the actual fairytale was a tad underwhelming to these jaded adult eyes, but then I guess there’s only so much one can do with a story that is so familiar. Handsomely mounted in Vicki Mortimer’s design, Sian Clifford brings a nice fresh modernity to Beauty and Mark Arends’ wolf-based Beast is a brilliant physical performance, able to show great emotion even through the effective costume with its mini-stilts allowing for convincing animalistic movement. And the presentation of the enchanted wish-fulfilment ensures that kids expecting some magic will not be disappointed.

Beauty and the Beast made for a charming evening’s entertainment and given the reception it received from its target audience, it certainly seemed to hit the mark. As my first visit to a show primarily aimed at children in quite some time, it was a more engaging experience that I was anticipating and sufficiently layered with humour and interest that most age ranges should find something to enjoy here.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with interval, subject to change)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 4th January

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