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Beauty and the Beast, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Beauty and the Beast, National Theatre

Beauty and the Beast, National Theatre

A classic story gets a fairy-tale makeover to become a magical Christmas treat

'A man's wand is his own private business': Justin Salinger as The Man in Pink

“You’ve never heard a fairy tale before unless you’ve heard it told by a real fairy. And I am a real fairy.” Festooned with magic, colour and humour, the National Theatre’s Christmas production of Beauty and the Beast is solid-oak tradition gift-wrapped with just enough shiny, iconoclastic naughtiness to sneak it past the children.

Wooing with conjuring tricks, slick visual effects and wit, its soft-centred sincerity comes as a surprise, a sugar-coated stiletto aimed at those with a weakness for festive sentimentality.

Compered by the riotously camp Man in Pink (Justin Salinger) and his doughty French assistant Cecile (Kate Duchêne), Katie Mitchell and co-devisor Lucy Kirkwood’s production frames Villeneuve’s original tale within a Victorian-style music-hall act. Songs (including the classic “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty”), variety acts (including a running joke of an insect orchestra) and magic tricks all punctuate the personal narrative of these two sparring partners, gradually exposing their own relationship and stake in the story.

There are plenty of observations about metatheatre and the reclaiming of patriarchal fables that could be made here, but what really matters is whether it all works in performance and succeeds in pleasing those toughest of critics – an audience of seven to 11-year-olds. Privy to the reactions of the two infinitely blasé schoolboys sitting in an arms-crossed, “so you think you can entertain me?” sort of a way just in front of me, I noted reactions ranging from all-out bellowing (The Man in Pink leads a vigorous chorus of pantomime-style audience participation), a proper gasp (more of that later) and an Ali G-style finger snap of approval accompanied by whatever the current equivalent of “Booyakasha” is – surely the full gamut of 10-year-old emotion.

08Whatever disapproval they may feel towards the distractions of the subplot, even the most unyielding of purists couldn’t fail to be charmed by Vicki Mortimer’s gorgeous set. A proper French château interior complete with chimney piece, cornicing and French windows (as well as a magical dumb waiter) has its muted monochromes mirrored in the regular patterning of thorny vines that climb the wall, a living cage for the unfortunate Beast (Mark Arends, pictured right with Sian Clifford as Beauty). Beauty’s interest in astronomy prompts a glittering solar system of planets to descend from the ceiling, and there were cries of delight as the final planet – the most remote in the solar system, and home to fairies – emerged above the audience, powdering us all with fairy dust.

Further visual delights come courtesy of Matthew Robins’s shadow puppetry. Hungry-eyed wolves, a cackling queen and threatening forests all make their expositionary appearance (recalling Marianne Elliott’s All’s Well That Ends Well), animated in perfect synchronisation by Duchêne and Kristin Hutchinson as mute lackey Rabbit.

05The Beast himself (a sprightly Mark Arends) is perhaps the production’s greatest draw however. With a hairy bodysuit, headdress and jointed stilt extensions down to each grizzled paw, his 8ft figure resembles nothing so much as an oversized lurcher who has got himself into a frock coat and isn’t sure quite how to proceed. Both menacing and pitifully emotive, Arends and the design team have created a miracle of physical characterisation, one whose dynamic with Sian Clifford’s matter-of-fact Beauty might lack the predatory sexual overtones of the original, but makes up for it in chummy tenderness. I defy anyone to witness his beastly leaps and prances of innocent joy on rediscovering nature, or the beautifully choreographed piano duet for a newly fond Beast and Beauty, and not croon just a bit inside.

The ill-favoured offspring of Willy Wonka and Cabaret’s Master of Ceremonies, Salinger’s stiletto-sporting Man in Pink (“I am a real fairy”) is all crisp delivery and droll humour, shrugging off the Gallic laments and expostulations of Duchêne’s Cecile (pictured above). Certainly not the easiest or most obvious of choices to reach contemporary children, this odd couple won over their junior audience by sheer force of subversive personality.

Such is the wit and complexity of Mitchell and Kirkwood’s framing device that, delightful as the show is, it can all get a bit Tristram Shandy at times, leaving one begging to be allowed to stay in the unmediated fairy-tale world for just a little longer. Action is rewound, sped up, and flits back and forth across the proscenium with a frequency that is maddening to an adult sensibility, but I suspect entirely comfortable for the overstimulated youth of the audience. A rather classier alternative to panto this Christmas, Beauty and the Beast offers old-school magic at 21st-century pace. Definitely one for grandparents and grandchildren to split their differences on.

Even the most unyielding of purists couldn't fail to be charmed by Vicki Mortimer's gorgeous set

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