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CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE: REVIEW: A battle of wills as Isabella battles with the Beast over dinner every Tuesday at 8pm

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

For more details and tickets visit https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/

For more Children’s Theatre visit https://childrenstheatrereviews.com/

CHILDREN’S THEATRE MAGAZINE: PREVIEW Ancient folk tale of a beautiful daughter and a mysterious beast in a dark forest set for Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre

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

Beauty – or rather Belle – is played by Sara Lessore in this production at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol

Although film versions may cloud the imaginations of audiences for the Tobacco Factory’s Christmas season production of Beauty and the Beast the original story is likely to have evolved several thousand years ago. One theory is that its original theme may be a collective folk memory of our encounters with Neanderthals as we populated Europe after the last Ice Age. How true that is up for debate but like most fairy stories its roots lie in the dark forests of an ancient world. Then wild animals were to be feared, hunted and revered – often being given human characteristics.

The universal story became crystallised when it was incorporated and retold in France in the 18th century in a collection of stories penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne Bardot de Villeneuve after which several versions were published by various authors. Each time the story was embellished by the new writer it was in order to satisfy the growing expectations of potential readers with an eye on sales. Themes include animalistic fantasies associated with ancient folk stories, arranged marriages, sibling jealousy, the desire for wealth and luxury, of not judging people on their looks and of goodness eventually triumphing over evil. These remain at the core of the story but the back story to Beauty’s life as a child in a large family, whether or not she has a suitor before meeting the Beast, and also how the Beast is actually portrayed, vary throughout the numerous TV and film version.

A red rose is the one ingredient that has remained constant within the narrative – a gift of dramatists and designers of posters and programmes. Beauty lives with her impoverished family after their father’s business collapses. He meets the wealthy Beast and makes a promise that his daughter will marry him in order to restore the family fortunes. Beauty’s only wish is not for luxuries but for a red rose as they don’t grow where she lives. Following her visit to the Beast’s house she secretly wishes to return home despite the Beast’s hospitality and romantic overtures. She returns home with a magic mirror and ring. The mirror allows her to see the Beast is dying of heart ache so she returns to the Beast but discovers he is in fact a handsome prince who has been turned into a monster by a magic spell. OK – that’s some of the content of the story – there are several variations so it will be interesting to see this one. The publicity image shows the actor playing Beauty along with a forest and red rose – so those are featured – and it should be said the actor is of course beautiful.

Last year’s dark retelling of Cinderella by the theatre was criticised by this magazine for being aimed too much at adults and being too scary for small children so it will be interesting to see if this play reaches out to five years olds. Directed by Alex Byrne with musical direction by Elliot Davis the cast features Martin Bonger as the Beast and Sara Lessore as Beauty – or rather Belle – the name given to the protagonist in most versions. The Tobacco Factory Theatre has teamed up with New International Encounter and Cambridge Junction for this “mischievous and music-filled co-production.”

It runs from Thursday, 30 November 2017 to Sunday 14 January 2018.

Harry Mottram

Age: 5+

To book tickets or for more information visit https://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/beauty-and-the-beast/