Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Beauty and the Beast

Phil Porter
Unicorn Theatre
(2010)

Beauty and the Beast publicity photo

At the Unicorn a jolly surprise awaits anyone who thinks that Beauty and the Beast story is all about a genteel Beauty in a big gold dress and a tortured regal Beast served by talking teapots and French feather dusters. For this Christmas show, writer Phil Porter has used the same formula as last year's Cinderella in taking the core of the old fairy tale, throwing out any Disneynifications and re-working the remaining features significantly.

In Porter's version of the story Belle and her family live in a surreal contemporary setting whilst the Beast and his household are not only locked inside the spell of the witch but also inhabit a strange land with its own language and set in a time when butlers wore hose and tail-coats.

Belle is pretty and without her green-fingered talents her impoverished family would not be able to grow enough to feed themselves. She is hard-working and determined but has a fearsomely bad temper which is easily provoked by her idle and vain sister, Seline.

When fate causes Belle's father to trespass onto the Beast's land events coerce him into promising that his daughter Belle will come to live at the castle in exchange for his life. Belle has to confront her fears when she arrives at the strange castle and comes face to face with the Beast but there is also the mystery of the bizarre young man that visits her dreams.

As Belle helps the Beast tend his garden, friendship and understanding blossom between the cabbages, whilst back home the family struggle without Belle and come to appreciate what they previously took for granted.

On the surface it doesn't look very familiar but there are layers and references which make it an enjoyable and amply filled narrative and the inventive staging more than makes up for having to give up the accustomed images and plot.

Directed by Tony Graham the clever script is in safe hands as he makes the most of the silliness and treats the gentle comedy with care. The staging is witty and busy and Jason Southgate's elevated in the round set is outstanding - in spite of some terrific performances, the set is the best thing about this show. If there is a grumble at all with this production it would be the use of song. Employed inconsistently and un-engaging in style, the songs tend to hold up the action whilst providing little, with the exception of the potty boatman's song and the second act opener which helped settle the audience after ice cream and some frenetic texting.

The Unicorn Ensemble perform the show. Amaka Okafor is a feisty and loveable Belle and Julie Hewlett brings a lot of fun as the unconventional baddy, the stroppy and vacant Seline, as does Ery Nzaramba with his dim but well-meaning Bruno.

John Cockerill's talent brings a wonderful contrast between his energetically physical grunting Beast and his other more gentle and comic roles. Samantha Adams is the batty housekeeper-cum-nanny to perfection. The Ensemble is enhanced by guest actors Richard Hollis as the endearingly blundering father and Nadia Morgan is delightfully funny as Mr Beleaguer and the Boatman. Liam Lane is in support with a tender performance as the overlooked brother, Raymond.

There may be no pantomime Dames or booing and hissing but there are plenty of ooohs and ahhhhs and laughs. Judging from the rapturous appreciation from the audience at the curtain call it would be fair to say the Unicorn has got it right again in this re-working of the tale about seeing the beauty that lies within.

"Beauty and the Beast" plays until 23 January. The show is suitable for age 7 and over.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti