Beauty and the Beast

Book & Lyrics by Paul Sirett Music & Lyrics by Wayne Nunes & Perry Melius and
Theatre Royal Stratford East

Helen Aluko as Belle and Vlach Ashton as Beast Credit: Robert Day
Amelia Carvallo as Peter Pan, Jotrell 'MJ' Coiffic-Kamall as Baby Bear, Ralph Bogard as Piggy and Laurence Aldridge as Pinnochio P Credit: Robert Day
Lawrence Aldridge as Mr Hardboiled, Michael Bertenshaw as Aunty Gisele, Ralph Bogard as Mr Choakhum, Helen Aluko as Belle and Jorell 'MJ' Coiffic-Kamall as worker Credit: Robert Day

Stratford East’s panto is always one I look forward to and this year’s is no disappointment. It is a long way from being London’s most lavish but it is lovely and full of the warmth and vitality that make for the happiest of audiences.

Writer Paul Sirett has a very original take on the traditional tale of Beauty and the Beast though keeping all its original elements. He begins with a family band of puppeteers, refugees from far away Faronia where they had to flee right in the middle of performing this very story. Now, after their arrival in Stratenford, Hingerland where they get jobs at Mr Choakum’s sweet factory, they find themselves part of it.

This is a plot all about stories that borrows characters from several others. A wicked witch turns the Beast’s staff into some well-loved characters. One becomes the Baby Bear of Goldilock’s three bears (Jorell ‘MJ’ Coiffic-Kamal), another is one of the Three Little Pigs (Ralph Bogard), then there is Pinocchio (Laurence Aldridge) with his nose growing longer every time he tells a fibs and an airborne Peter Pan (Amelia Cavallo) twisting down from above on silk lisse bands.

Helen Aluko as Belle, the beautiful young woman held as a prisoner in the Beast’s palace, is a Theatre Royal newcomer but her handsome prince, turned into the antlered, white furred Beast, was the hero’s rabbit friend in Jack and the Beanstalk two years ago. Several other members of the company and almost all the production creatives have been part of previous Stratford pantos, including the brilliant Michael Birtenshaw playing Belle’s Aunty Gisele. It’s not surprising that they make such a good team.

Bertenshaw, as at home in Shakespeare at the Globe or with the RSC as in panto, makes her a real elderly aunty never going over the top to lose that reality while still achieving a comic eccentricity, childlike complicty with the young audience and a naughtily knowing connection with the grown-ups.

It is Belle’s dad Marcel (Minal Patel) who gets Belle involved with the Beast when he’s looking for a rose to bring home to her. Like all those already mentioned he’s on the good side but there are some formidable baddies to boo.

First there are the bad boss Mr Choakum (Ralph Bogard), who owns the sweet factory and wants to marry Belle, and his sidekick Teddy Boy suited Mr Hardboiled (Laurence Aldridge) – but they are only the small fry. The most dangerous is Antonia Kemi Coker’s Witchy, who put the spell on the Beast in the first place. She struts around stylishly in a red cat suit defying the antagonistic audience accompanied by her red-haired niece Prunella (Allyson Ava-Brown) who would actually rather be nice if her aunty would let her.

You may have noticed goodies doubling as baddies but with clever costumes (by Harriet Barsby) and sharp characterisation you’d never know it. Dawn Reid’s direction makes sure every individual is clearly defined as well as driving the show at a spanking pace. Jenny Tiranami’s settings help ensure that. They often open up like pop-up picture books and their simplicity foregrounds the actors.

Along with all the usual fun of audience interaction and a sing-along song sheet there is a bonanza of lively musical numbers led by MD Ian McGregor on the keyboards and the composers on drums and guitar that often set the company dancing. At the preview I saw they were a little over amplified. That may by now have been put right and it is the only negative comment about a wholly delightful pantomime. The Theatre Royal team has done it again! Bravo!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton