Beauty - or rather Belle - is played Sara Lessore in this production
Beauty – or rather Isabella – is played by Sara Lessore in this production

An assertive and independent minded Beauty and a boorish but ultimately comedic Beast make this version of the French fairy tale into an enjoyable battle of wills.

Alex Byrne’s production of the fairy tale with its roots in ancient European folk mythology takes much of its plot from the early versions of the story by 18th century French writers who gathered up orally related sagas and wrote them down for publication. We have the financially ruined rich merchant with his daughters, the Beast who extracts a promise of a bride from the merchant, the red rose, and Beauty’s conversion of the Beast to a Prince through true love. And it all begins with the Prince being transformed into the Beast by an ugly Italian witch for failing to allow her in his house. An Italian witch? Well the story was written down by a French citizen.

An ensemble cast of six played all the roles adding hugely to the flow of the drama by playing musical instruments throughout, either in character or as an impromptu orchestra. Staged in the round with only minimal props and scenery the cast are at once story tellers and characters in this fast moving, very funny and creative production. Kasia Zaremba-Byrne’s movement direction was critical in utilising the space with the audience on four sides, but it also worked seamlessly with the casts’ many entrances and exits – sometimes in a wheel barrow.

In Sara Lessore we had a very assertive Beauty known as Isabella who didn’t take any nonsense from her two snooty sisters Anastasia (Elliot Davis) and Latrice (Samantha Sutherland) and was an antidote to the sometimes sugary image of heroines in fairy tales. The sisters’ choreographed bitchiness, name calling and mocking Isabella as ‘a creep’ created constant laughter as both actors revelled in being the spoilt brats.

Ben Tolley’s father figure was forever in the shadow of his long dead wife, apologising for everything, never being able to do enough for Latrice and Anastasia but always shifting the burden of family responsibility onto Isabella because she can take it. His was the straightest of straight roles in a play full of larger than life characters and as such Tolley did well as the much put upon ‘daddy’ – as Anastasi and Latrice patronisingly called him.

The beast played by Martin Bonger came into his own when he laid the table after the interval. His idea of courtship was to have dinner with his imprisoned Beauty every Tuesday at 8pm. Using the table as his stage he morphed Tuesday after Tuesday from an uncouth bully into a lovable wanting-to-please-puppy of a Beast as he finally charmed Isabella in some knockabout theatre ending with the themes that true love conquers all and transformation is always possible in the most intractable of characters.

One of the strengths of the production was the script which on Byrne’s admission in the programme notes is a stripped back version based on the French fairy tale. That sharpness helped the story race along with much unspoken text performed through movement, gesture and music. Like many fairy stories Beauty and the Beast is likely to be a collective folk memory that could be traced back to man’s origins when belief systems mixed humans and wild animals to create mythological creatures.

With an atmosphere that had overtones of a lost European world of wild beasts, dark forests and forbidding fortresses created by Trui Malten’s moody lighting and the ensemble’s music, this is a play that kept the children in the audience entranced and adults chuckling throughout. Creative family theatre can be a difficult one to get right with its delicate balance of being accessible to children and yet not patronising to adults and vice versa but this collaboration between Tobacco Factory Theatres, New International Encounter and Cambridge Junction achieves the right mix.

Harry Mottram

The play continues to January 14, 2018.

5 stars

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