Writer: Chris Hannon
Director: Rhiannon Hannon
Beauty and the Beast is very much in the tradition of Wakefield Theatre Royal’s excellent pantomimes, but just a tweak or two better this year. The theatre has a sharp eye for what to change and what to keep exactly the same. For the eleventh year Chris Hannon’s droll and knowing Dame takes to the stage, now with a pair of comic sidekicks (Chris Chilton and Sam Nixon) who have developed a well-grooved partnership of silliness. Similarly director Rhiannon Hannon, musical director Jim Lunt, choreographer Louise Denison and designer Mark Walters produce the goods year on year.
What changes is the story. Chris Hannon’s scripts are respectful of panto tradition, but work ingenious variations on the original tales. Beauty and the Beast combines the story of the prince/monster redeemed by love with the story of the great cooking contest in the town of Le Wakey (in deepest France, wouldn’t you know?) and the intense rivalry between the master-patissier Monsieur Bon-Bon and Fanny Fromage, inventor of the world’s smelliest cheese. Since Bon-Bon’s daughter is called Belle, it’s a no-brainer working out how she will be involved in the story of the Beast, but on the way there are such delights as the evil sorceress Narcissa visiting the town and being mistaken for the celebrity judge Mary Berry Antoinette.
And Hannon’s script really tells a story; it’s not just a succession of turns and routines, but a story about people – not real people, of course, that would be too much! The Covid pandemic has had an effect. The Beast’s 500 years of isolation have an added poignancy that the script draws on without labouring the point and there is an emphasis on kindness and caring for others that sits well in these times. Prince Pierre spurns an old beggar; she turns into Narcissa, ever-young and evil, he becomes the Beast; when he is redeemed by love, she reverts to an old crone and he, guilt-ridden, offers her sanctuary in his castle. Similarly the script and production are not afraid of pathos, if not for too long at a time.
But mostly it’s just huge fun! You know you’re on safe ground before the start with Mark Walters’ superbly detailed front cloth and glittery side-towers. Then the young chorus is outstanding: there are three teams of six, presumably equally good. Yes, you expect the charming smiles and precise, meticulously rehearsed dance moves, but this lot are athletic with it – and thoroughly professional. It comes as no surprise that Meg Elsegood, sparkling happily as Belle, learned her trade in the Wakefield chorus.
Chris Hannon’s Fanny Fromage is not one of your glamorous Dames, his costumes comic-strips of absurdity, his regular schtick to beat the audience into submission with outrageous puns. Chris Chilton – too Gallic for words as Monsieur Bon-Bon – shares Hannon’s ability to slip in and out of character at the drop of an accent. Sam Nixon is engaging and energetic as Louis Fromage, a sort of mix of principal boy and acceptable idiot. The three of them have great fun with Hannon’s devilishly alliterative tongue twisters and with a particularly manic Twelve Days of Christmas, re-configured as the twelve dishes to be judged by Mary Berry Antoinette.
Edward Leigh is not the scariest of Beasts, partly because we have already seen him as the elegant Prince Pierre, partly because his manners only let him down in a comically uncouth banquet scene, but he certainly convinces as a princely hero. Elisha Ainsley’s disdain as Narcissa is, if anything, even more crushing than her fury and her voice stands out, even in a vocally strong cast. Grace Liston delights as the excessively conscientious and guilt-ridden Fifi le-Fret, fussing and fretting about her responsibilities as guardian of the rose that keeps the Beast alive and panicking as it gradually sheds its last few petals.
Musically the show is strong. The usual simple keyboards and percussion line-up in the pit belies its modest size and the songs are cleverly chosen. Together with comedy numbers and lively ensembles, a couple of quality songs recur to good effect: La Vie en Rose and the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles.
Runs until January 3rd 2022