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Beauty and the Beast

Devised by Katie Mitchell, text by Lucy Kirkwood
RNT Cottesloe Theatre
(2010)

Beauty and the Beast production photo

The National's Christmas shows of late have been big budget affairs based on contemporary teen novels such as Coram Boy and Northern Lights.

It is therefore refreshing to see a return to more traditional Yuletide fare, with Katie Mitchell and Lucy Kirkwood's version of a French classic fairy tale, devised with the company.

Their play is charming and at times sad, as well as funny. It is set around a century ago, with narration coming from Justin Salinger's music hall MC - Fairy. He wears a pink suit and top hat, Johnny Depp/Mad Hatter style, together with pink high heels and matching beribboned topknot - as he says, "a real fairy".

Assisted by a French sidekick, highly-strung, unbiddable Cecile - Kate Duchêne playing a frustrated ugly duckling waiting to become an ugly duck - he tells a classic tale.

This should be known to all and is set by designer Vicki Mortimer behind a red-curtained proscenium with swift transitions between a palace and more modest accommodation.

A Queen offends a fairy who turns her lad into a horribly hairy, 9 foot tall Beast (an athletic Mark Arends on stilts) related to the rodent family. The monster comes attached to a curse condemning him to perpetual beastliness unless a girl kisses and marries him.

Then guess what ...........

The human magic in this production lies in the way in which Sian Clifford's soft-hearted young Beauty is first tricked into visiting then staying at the Beast's palace, before gradually falling for the gruff fellow's far from apparent charms.

There is far more to this show than Lucy Kirkwood's script, though the jokes are fun and story imaginatively realised.

The magic of Katie Mitchell at her best rests on tireless preparation, which pays off in effects that make viewers do a double take. This evening is no exception.

The low-budget special effects come thick and fast. Traditional shadowplay using silhouettes speeds along the exposition, while other effects include a magic mirror, live fast forward and rewind, instantly fulfilled wishes from a dumb waiter far more serviceable than Pinter's and best of all a Thought Snatcher, which allows visitors to tune into characters' brains.

On the musical front, we get Cecile's singing, an insect orchestra, bowed saw and invisible harpsichord

The overall effect is charming with fun for the little ones (ideally 8-12) and a mix of drama and humour for their companions. Beauty and the Beast may not quite be a panto but it is a worthy junior Xmas show for our National Theatre.

Playing until 4 January 2011

Reviewer: Philip Fisher