04 January 2011

Beasts and Beauties - Hampstead Theatre, Thursday 30th December 2010

Classic tales from Grimm, Andersen, Aesop and Perrault, mixed in with less well-known children’s stories from around the world.

Justin Avoth
Elaine Claxton
Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty
Emily Mytton
Al Nedjari
Jack Tarlton
Jason Thorpe
Kelly Williams
Creative Team:
Writer : Carol Ann Duffy
Director: Melly Still
Design: Melly Still, Anna Fleischle
Lighting;Chris Davey
Music: Dave Price
Costumes: Ilona Karas
Anyone who has ever been a child will remember how exciting it was to be read stories at bedtime, and this evening’s outing served to confirm that the magic of storytelling is alive and well. This was a deceptively simple evening, during which various fairy stories from different countries were presented on stage by a small, extremely talented cast backed up by an even more talented musician, a (very) large box of what were essentially dressing up costumes and lots and lots of props and found objects. Designed by the same person who did the Young Vic production of Grimm Tales which I saw more years ago than I care to remember, this was a production in essentially the same vein –“we provide the stage, a few costumes and a few props, and you bring your imagination”. Its success proves that, with imagination, anything is possible. It’s a pity, therefore, that the adults in the audience far outnumbered the children, as this production would have been guaranteed to weave its spell over the young and make them theatregoers for life.
From the technical point of view it was an extremely challenging show, with dozens of large items like stepladders dropping down from the ceiling or popping up from under the stage (in fact, during the interval, there were as many backstage staff hanging new props from the ceiling as there had been actors on stage during the performance), merely proving that “simple” can be really, really complicated. Costuming must have been an absolute nightmare, as the majority of stories needed the full cast and each story was presented in a different style, necessitating hundreds of costume items. Particularly inventive were the animal costumes, showing that strict adherence to reality – or indeed anything approaching realism - is not necessary when you have a talented costume designer. My favourite (and, judging by the audience reaction, many other peoples’ too) was the cow costume, which was essentially a long flared tweed skirt, a baggy white shirt, a pair of large false eyelashes, a cowbell and a pink rubber glove. Judging by the near-hysterical laughter of a little girl at the other end of our row, her vote probably went for the costume worn by Jack Tarlton as the Emperor in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” which consisted of a crown, grey shoes, yellow socks and a strategically placed clipboard, flag or bunch of flowers.
What particularly liked was that each story was presented in a different way – Bluebeard was set in the 1820s, Beauty and the Beast in Renaissance Italy, The Emperor’s New Clothes in modern dress, with others in more-or-less “traditional fairy story costumes” or in improvised costumes, or even in a blend of different styles. One of the stories (which I wasn’t familiar with and which dealt with an unlikely alliance between an old dog and a cunning wolf and which, on reflection, was probably an obscure Aesop’s Fable) was presented “junkyard style” – the guy playing the dog wore odd carpet slippers, baggy brown cords and a threadbare Fair-Isle pullover and scenery such as the windmill, the forest and a broken window were drawn on transparent film and projected onto the walls using OHPs. Another story, that of a man dissatisfied with his work who swaps places with his wife for a day, used “Grimm-style” costumes for the “humans” but slightly surreal costumes for the “animals” – such as the cow costume I’ve referred to earlier. A stepladder became the gable of the house on which the cow ultimately gets stuck – and that was that. As I said before, just add imagination. Also very good was the fact that these weren’t the saccharine, Disney-fied versions of the stories; the Beast in Beauty and the Beast was truly beastly, Bluebeard was smoothly charming but plausibly evil, the “chopping up the child” scene in The Juniper Tree (done in silhouette) was really, really frightening and the Troll Hag in the story about the North Wind (Scandinavian in origin, by the looks of) was so gruesome that at least one child was carried screaming from the auditorium. And a bloody good job too – half the appeal of this kind of story is that children love being scared witless as long as good is seen to triumph eventually and evil seen to be punished. Did you know that Beauty’s horrible sisters were turned to statues outside her castle gates so that they had to spend all eternity watching their sister coming and going in happiness? No, nor did I – but it makes a very satisfying ending to see on the stage.
The sheer amount of energy on stage was amazing - and exhausting.  One of the adapters is apparently in the process of creating a similar production based on The Thousand and One Nights, and if its anything near as inventive and entertaining as Beasts and Beauties, then believe me I’m first in the queue for tickets.

What the critics thought:



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