24 October 2009

Beauty and the Beast – Churchill Theatre Bromley, Thursday 22nd October 2009

Synopsis: I'm sure you know, and if you don't you should be ashamed of yourself!

Beast – Shaun Dalton
Belle – Ashley Oliver
Gaston – Ben Harlow
LeFou – Eddie Dredge
Maurice – Richard Colson
Mrs. Potts – Sarah Louise Day (understudy)
Cogsworth – Ashley Knight
Lumiere – Phil Barley
Wardrobe – Laura Barrie
Feather Duster – Sophia Thierens
Rug – Chris Cage
Monsieur D’Arque – Daniel Page

Creative Team:
Director/Choreographer – Alison Pollard
Set – Gareth Williams
Costumes – Elizabeth Dennis
Lighting – David Howe

From Broadway to Bromley – how are the mighty fallen! The No. 1 Disney production of this tale “as old as time” (an epithet which could be used about the “girl” playing Belle yesterday), having toured the provinces to the delight of little girls in yellow polyester ballgowns for what seems like an eternity is now being farmed out to touring companies who usually produce “all-star” pantomimes at venues such as the Anvil Theatre Basingstoke and the Grand Pavilion, Rhyl. “UK Productions” is run by two slightly dodgy-looking blokes who look like distant relatives of the Kray Brothers in their programme photos. There’s nothing “all-star” about this Beauty and the Beast – Belle’s biography reveals that “in 2006 [she] featured in a commercial stills photoshoot for Bishop’s Finger Beer” – so not quite Elaine Paige then.

Still, this was a reasonably good, if slightly work-a-day production of something I still wish I had seen when it was on in the West End. If it hadn’t been played quite so cartoony though, it would have been heaps better. Beauty and the Beast is actually quite a dark story (most fairytales are), and this was very firmly aimed towards the very young members of the audience who have spent hours plonked in front of the DVD while their mothers are busy painting the scuffmarks on their white stilettos with tippex. Most of them spent much of the performance screaming (the children, not their mothers). The show veered dangerously towards panto during the first half – scenery and direction for the opening chorus seemed lifted direct from something like Mother Goose, and Gaston and LeFou were played as classic panto villain and sidekick, complete with “comedy” sound effects while trading not-very-convincing blows. I was left thinking that it could have been played a lot more “down the middle”, which would have appealed to a broader range of audiences. Mind you, this didn’t seem to bother the gaggle of Bromley-ettes sitting next to us who spent the entire show with their shoes off and bare feet firmly plonked on the edge of the balcony rail. One of the major criticisms of Disney is that it always goes for the sugary goo in stories and downplays any darker nuances, and the sugary goo is applied with a bucket here to the entire production’s detriment. Its basically a cheesy version of the already-cheesy film version.
There was only one point when the creepy, slightly gothic nature of the story rose though the gloop (and interestingly its an aspect that never appeared in the film) – at several points, the staff of the castle comment on and worry about how they are gradually changing from people into inanimate objects as the spell progresses, nicely reflected in the script and in minor costume alterations – at one point, Cogsworth acquires a key sticking out of his back and the chambermaid’s hands start turning into feather dusters. Its commented on that one of the minor flunkeys is so obsequious that he’s turning into a doormat. It would have been good if this idea had been developed further, along the lines of the Birmingham Royal Ballet production I saw and reviewed in October 2008. However, the idea of giving the wardrobe a back story and making her into a faded opera singer makes little sense – what is an opera singer doing hanging around a royal castle? Still, it gives Cogsworth someone to pair off with at the end, I suppose, and of course everyone must have someone to hold hands with at the curtain call in Pantoland.

For some reason, the second act was played considerably “straighter” than the first, and this improved the production no end. Belle’s feeling of being “different” – she’s described in the programme as being thought odd by the villagers as she prefers books to boys – could have been pointed up and made more of, and would have chimed in nicely with the Beast’s problem of being perceived as something “different” because of the way he looks. Instead, we got the usual wide-eyed Disney heroine whose worries about being thought different are no more than a slight wisp of cloud in an otherwise clear and untroubled sky. Still, its easier to go for saccharine than psychology, isn’t it?

Set changes were impressively slick throughout, although there were a troubling number of front-and back-projections, which achieve nothing but blur the dividing line between live theatre and film, meaning trouble ahead for the next generation of theatre set designers who will find it increasingly difficult to find work, and easy times ahead for directors who will use projections as a lazy option. Some of the special effects were impressive – petals falling off the enchanted rose, the transformation of the Beast back into a human (although it was painfully obvious that there were two people wearing Beast costumes at one point, one keeping his face very obviously hidden and having his dialogue miked over the sound system).

Of the performances, I have to say that Ben Harlow was dreadful as Gaston. Yes, he had the biceps required, but where Gaston should be burly, boneheaded, baritone and butch, Harlow was stringy, soprano and sissy, milking the role for camp comedy value rather than having that “you lookin’ at me, mate?” arrogance that physically beefy but dunderheaded men have when they feel that their brawn is being outclassed by brain. He was obviously cast for his strange but unique ability of being able to grin exactly like a Cheshire cat and show off acres of teeth. He didn’t come across as being any kind of villain and consequently his demise at the end of the show didn’t really register. Ashley Oliver was OK as Belle – if rather too long in the tooth and she has an irritatingly squeaky speaking voice, pitched just below the range at which dogs start to whine. Sarah Louise Day did OK as Mrs. Potts considering that she’s the show’s “Swing” – theatrespeak for someone who understudies any part that needs understudying, whether principal, chorus member or dancer, but played it too young to be the kind of wrinkled motherly influence that Angela Lansbury achieved in the film. She also *gasp* CUT the second verse of Tale as Old as Time at which point I almost demanded my money back. Ashley Knight seemed a bit tired as Cogsworth; very slow to pick up on cues. The banter between Cogsworth and Lumiere should snap back and forth as the two friends try and top each other intellectually, and I felt that this wasn’t happening. Even Phil Barley as Lumiere didn’t seem quite on top form, although he was far and away the best person on the stage; I thought that many of the lines were just thrown away. If the production hadn’t been pitched at the very low intellectual level, perhaps he might have put in a bit more effort. But then Thursday afternoon in Bromley, a week before half-term (bad timing, UK Productions!) isn’t exactly going to be a cerebral fantasmagoria.

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