Beasts And Beauties

Retold by Carol Ann Duffy, adapted by Melly Still and Tim Supple
Hampstead Theatre, London

Hampstead Beasts And Beauties, photo: Johan Persson

On a crisp, winter’s night in a north London theatre, families gather from far and wide to hear tell of the magic of generations past. Enhanced, retold, inverted—and filtered through the surreal lens of poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy—this magic is named Beasts And Beauties and brought to vivid life by Melly Still and Tim Supple.

Tearing open the fairytale world and allowing its inhabitants free run of the mind, the enchanting family show returns to Hampstead Theatre following a hugely successful season last year. Banishing two tales from the original line-up, Beasts And Beauties explores six classic stories including Bluebeard, The Husband Who Was To Mind The House For The Day, Beauty And The Beast, Toby And The Wolf, The Juniper Tree and The Emperor’s New Clothes.

A cast of seven traverses the boundaries between reality and fantasy, tradition and modernity, storyteller and character in an entertaining mixture of fairytale, folklore and mythical malady.

With a nod and a wink—and a mildly inappropriate milking gesture—the production seeks out the naughty child in all of us, embodying a pantomime jollity as the actors burst through the fourth wall, running wild in the aisles and interacting directly with the sea of eager faces. One magical moment even saw a whole section of the audience rise in unison to catch imaginary food thrown by the characters—so intense was the bond between performer and observer.

Like the precariously-placed props that dangle from the rafters, we’re suspended in state of storytelling from the moment the lights go down to the guaranteed encore. We strain to make out words and images projected onto the walls as actors crouch on the floor to sketch keenly with a pencil. We sit captivated through bouts of shadow play and bursts of song. We chuckle knowingly at the simplistic portrayal of animals—for which a rubber glove acts as an udder and a nervous tick signifies a raging mare.

We shiver as a literal ‘sheet’ of snow engulfs our hero, and even shift out heads to one side as the very ground beneath our feet is sent topsy-turvy when a man casually sleeps standing up—his bed and table at an alarming 90 degree angle to the floor.

Children will relish the slapstick silliness of The Husband Who Was To Mind The House For The Day, while adults appreciate the gender-switching chaos of Duffy’s mischievous hand. Elsewhere The Emperor’s New Clothes receives a ‘fashionista’ update, as our titular fool struts down a gleaming red carpet, modelling nothing but his birthday suit, while Toby And The Wolf is treated to a bounding, loveable K-9 lead that won’t fail to inject a warm, fuzzy feeling into the most hardened of hearts.

But there’s no denying children are attracted by the promise of a forbidden glimpse into darkness usually relegated to well after the watershed. It is perhaps Duffy’s involvement that discourages compromise on these grittier themes—dangling just enough of the taboo adult subjects, like sex, violence and death, to give children a taste, without making them sick…

German folktale The Juniper Tree deals with patricide and cannibalism. Bluebeard is a horrifying tale of murdered wives kept locked in the cellar. Even Beauty And The Beast is stripped of its Disney sheen and repackaged with a Beast who looks not unlike a zombie/vampire hybrid borrowed straight from an 18-rated horror film.

Surely the children would be cowering and weeping into their mothers’ laps? Pah! Today’s kids are made of sturdier stock, lapping up the monstrous tales as readily (if not more eagerly) than their light-hearted counterparts, while the production weaves uncanny magic into the darkest of corners, using shadow screens and wire animals to soften the blow.

It’s this kind of inventive retelling that makes for a bold, energetic family production, which merges pantomime with magical realism with a cheeky vengeance. And, while the first half takes time to build momentum, the second exhilarates, leaving a sea of twinkling eyes and excitable minds to spill out onto the chilly streets and make their way home to some interesting dreams…

Playing until 7 January 2012

Reviewer: Kat Halstead

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