Beauty and the Beast

Marc Day
Millfield Arts Centre, Edmonton
(2011)

Since its pantomime debut in 1821, Beauty and the Beast has gone through a number of transformations, even being paired with Sleeping Beauty in 1900 to form The Sleeping Beauty and the Beast at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Most modern pantomimes, however, tend to lean towards the 1991 Disney version of the tale with Beauty’s father a mad-cap inventor, not a merchant, and the omission of two wicked sisters in favour of a jealous lover and wicked witch.

Pantomime’s survival is down to its willingness to evolve and embrace the contemporary and the Millfield’s Beauty and the Beast supports a growing trend of Fairy-less pantos. When modern British pantomime was born in the late 19th Century, Victorians actually believed in the fantastical creatures, but those days are now long gone and so it falls upon the production’s Villain, Wicked Witch Heather played by Manal El-Feitury, to fulfil the Fairy’s role of narrating the story and linking scenes together with her verse dialogue. Unfortunately this leaves Witch Heather bereft of a sparring partner and with her anger constantly directed at the audience she appears rather isolated onstage and detached from events.

In the role of Beauty, Freya Hurcomb has a stunning voice, but needs to tone down her exaggerated performance and constant flowing arm movements. However, if Hurcomb is guilty of over acting, Adrian Quinton as Gaston Le Vain is guilty of the opposite. His performance is rather subtle and he seems unsure of whether he wants to play Le Vain for boos or laughs as his character oscillates between both, making his character come across rather confused.

As Beauty’s father Professor Crackpot, David Anthony graces the stage full of eccentricity and warmth whilst the chilling Beast is successfully portrayed by Aston Dobson in an effective mask. There may be little magic due to Beast’s transformation initiating events and a lack of Fairy, but this pantomime makes up for it with plenty of comedy from Alex Scott Fairley and Greg Castiglioni.

Putting dodgy wigs and a lack of hooped petticoats aside, Scott Farley’s Dame, Madame Fifi, is a riotous French fancy. She leaps about the stage, parle français and has everyone shouting “Ooh la la Fifi” upon every entrance. Joining in with her continental comic capers is Castiglioni as the Castle handyman loopy Louis. The Millfield has found a pantomime natural in Castiglioni and will no doubt be keen to hold onto him for next season’s Mother Goose.

Not only does Castiglioni deliver his comedy patter with great skill, he knows how to work and feed off an audience and can also belt out a fine musical number indeed. Although the baking scene could do with a little more madness, the second act’s set piece in the Beast’s Garden is exactly what panto tomfoolery should be as Fifi and Louis set out to rid the rosebushes of some rather wiggly worms who pop up everywhere, evading their spray which ‘accidentally’ covers the audience instead.

Bold and colourful sets, courtesy of Sonoko Obuchi, make the Millfield stage bustle with life and energy, complimented by a two-piece band led by Scott Alder. ‘After Today’ from Dr Dolittle makes for a rousing opening, although ‘I Believe in Miracles’ seems a little inappropriate considering some of the lyrics coupled with pelvic thrust choreography courtesy of Emma Rogers.

Running at just over two hours, the Millfield Arts Centre manages to pack in plenty of fun without anyone getting bored or worrying about home time. There is nothing worse than an overly-long pantomime and at around 125 minutes including an interval, Marc Day and his team have found the perfect length.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ plays at the Millfield Arts Centre, Edmonton until 8th January 2012

Simon Sladen