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Beauty and the Beast – The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-Under-Lyme

Reviewer:  Jay Nuttall

Writer: Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve

Adapter/Director: Theresa Heskins

Advertised as a spectacular re-telling of the original, much-loved fairy-tale, the creative team at The New Vic Theatre in Stoke finally stage their postponed Christmas show from last year. Theresa Heskins’ adaptation from Bardot De Villeneuve’s original 1740 novel is an imagining that encompasses much darker magic than the enchanted castle and its inhabitants presented by further adaptations and infamous Disney’s musical.

Heskins immediately sets the tone with Rajnhildre (Danielle Bird) as the Queen of the Goblins and her mischievous entourage. This is a show that delves into magical worlds and explores the backstory of The Beast’s tragic transformation as much as the relationship between the titular characters. New Vic regular Polly Lister’s role as the Warrior Queen mother of the transformed Prince/Beast is an interesting addition to the overall world this production embodies. The tale begins with her bluster and bravado silenced as Rajnhildre turns her to stone and her young, mute son into the body of a beast. It is a dark and menacing start.

Moving on several years and sisters Bella, Nigella and Prunella arrive for cleaning duties, sent by their father, at the strange and unusual dwelling known in folklore to be inhabited by a beast. Nigella (Rhyanna Alexander-Davis) and Prunella (Solaya Sang) act as larger-than-life comic sisters (borrowed from another fairy-tale perhaps), and balance to the darker elements of the show. Bella (Rhiannon Skerritt) mysteriously and briefly becomes the employee of the household as her sisters flee, meeting the strange and mechanical servants as well as the towering beast. The remainder of the story is a tale as old as time and entrenched in popular culture as both Bella and the Beast learn to penetrate the guise of the other, eventually falling in love despite the exterior.

The most notable element of this highly imaginative production is the design. The closely-knit creative team at The New Vic (who have produced Christmas shows for over a decade) once again excel in the possibilities this theatre in the round can adapt to. Firmly at the heart is Laura Willstead’s opulently minimalist stage design. Complimented by Daniella Beattie’s lighting design that shape rooms, corridors and gardens, Willstead makes one’s mind’s eye do much of the work with the help of iron door frames that fly in and out with metronomic precision and an ingenious secret, enchanted mirror. Lis Evans’ baroque costume design has pleasing elements, especially the inclusion of moving clockwork in chief Butler Wheelian’s (Jonathan Charles) garb. James Atherton’s score is largely recorded with the actor-musicians diving in and out of live performance at the helm of show musical director and violinist Farhaan Shah. In short, the creative team have, once again, done what they do best for the theatre’s annual festive treat.

Both Beauty (Rhiannon Skerritt) and The Beast (Nicholas Richardson) have exciting roles. Sprightly and unapologetic Skerritt refuses The Beast’s ceaseless marriage proposals despite incessantly believing she may be eaten for dinner. As The Beast, horned Richardson pads around the stage on jumping stilts, soaring above his catch, a voice-altering sound design distorting his vocals. Through the eyes of a child at stage level he is appropriately terrifying.

As a spectacle, the production looks terrific. Wheelian’s gliding around the stage on Segway, The Beast’s enormous stilted stature and the floating doorframes and magic mirror are extremely pleasing stage crafts. However, the production lacks some peril and humour. The latter may be found as the run continues. Heskins’ discussion of what it means to be human is quite rightly at the heart of the piece and the nub of what Villeneuve explored in her novel. It is what grounds this production through adult eyes. The tone, however, is a little confusing. We straddle between traditional eighteenth-century period costume yet must accept that one character rides an electric Segway and the comic coupling of Bella’s sisters (bordering on Cinderella’s Uglies) uncomfortably juxtapose the more enchanted feel of the piece and discussion surrounding the nature of the essence of what it means to be human. The imbalance requires shifts from an audience that may sometimes wonder what they should be feeling or what the show actually is.

Heskins and company always offer an alternative and extremely exciting re-telling of a tale many think they may know. A Goblin Queen and a Warrior Queen are probably not on the agenda for many walking into a theatre to watch Beauty and the Beast so this version is a great education into the origins of a story that, like the story and The Beast, has gone through many transformations.

Runs until 29th January 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Transformative

The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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