Beasts and Beauties

Adapted by Carol Ann Duffy, dramatised by Melly Still and Tim Supple
Hampstead Theatre
(2010)

Beasts and Beauties production photo

These wildly eight varied and entertaining tales from Europe come with not only an impeccable pedigree but also a history.

This adaptation by the current Poet Laureate, Scottish-born Carol Ann Duffy, dramatised for the stage by Melly Still and Tim Supple, first saw the light of day in Norway in 2002, before holding its British premiere in Bristol two years later.

With a history of 18 collaborations that includes two doses of Grimm's Tales, Tales from Ovid and two Salman Rushdie adaptations (Midnight's Children and Haroun) and the Sea of Stories behind them, there was little doubt that this prolific pairing would provide something special given this material.

They do not let anybody down, although at certain points during the 2½ hour duration, younger children might just be driven to tears or a series of sleepless nights. Anyone else will just revel in the invention and art of this lovely production.

Hampstead has once again been set up as a deep thrust, which helps to involve the audience, as stories from across Europe are related in a wide range of theatrical styles from classical to modern, physical to realistic, using language to match.

Director Melly Still has a knack of casting exactly the right actors and this eight-strong ensemble does not have a weak link. Everybody gets a chance to show off their talents and, in particular, Jason Thorpe who is becoming a bit of a seasonal star following his appearance as a parrot in Nation at the National last year, shines, along with Kelly Williams as an appropriately beautiful Beauty and Jack Tarlton, a spookily fearsome Beast.

The actors are supplemented by simple, minimalist design from Miss Still and Ann Fleischle that makes the most of this ultra-modern theatre's facilities and the tireless efforts of composer, musical director and multitalented performer, Dave Price.

The evening opens with a tongue in cheek version of that timeless horror story Blue Beard and then dissolves into farce with The Husband Who Was to Mind the House. This could be seen as a feminist diatribe, as husband and wife swap roles for a day. While the lady does the business in the fields, poor old hubby finds life at home on the range rather more challenging.

The first half ends with what might be this year's most popular Christmas story, Beauty and the Beast. It has to be said that the bloodied, fanged Beast could have come straight out of the goriest of horror movies and might leave even hardened adults cowering beneath their seats.

After the break, Jack Tarlton has to work very hard to protect his modesty in an updated version of The Emperor's New Clothes, complete with stylish designer threads and streetwise lingo. He does so thanks to pitch perfect choreography throughout a few minutes of superb comedy.

The peak of scariness is reached in The Juniper Tree, a morality tale in which one might argue that the creators have gone over the top in their efforts to portray scenes of tortuous excess that are reminiscent of Titus Andronicus. For those with dark sense of humour though, it is laugh out loud funny as the creators explore second wife syndrome at its manic worst. The evening ends on a calm and sweet note with a witty Norwegian comedy called The Girl and the North Wind.

The publicity material suggests that Beasts and Beauties would make good viewing for anybody aged eight or above. That might well be the case but more sensitive children at the bottom of that age range might just find it a little too challenging. Those slightly older, anywhere in the range from about 10 or 11 to 95, should have a whale of a time. Catch it while you can, as the run is only three weeks.

Playing until 31 December

Reviewer: Philip Fisher