The likelihood of anyone being unfamiliar with the plot of Beauty and the Beast is so slim that David Nixon’s immense interpretation of the French classic is perfect for ballet novices and veterans alike.
Nixon straddles choreography, direction and costume design to produce a seamlessly constructed and visually unforgettable production. Our cinematic knowledge of the story about a prince transformed into a beast and a pure, young maiden who sees beyond his hideous exterior is enhanced by the traditional touches of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original tale.
We see the addition of two precocious sisters Georgina May and Pippa Moore who strut around the stage in comically outrageous costumes, removing some of the grace from ballet with jerky, attention-seeking movements. A vivacious, almost saccharine, score dominated by Debussy accompanies Beauty’s Martha Leebolt earlier life in the Kingdom in Act I, as she dotes on her father Darren Goldsmith and sleazy pursuers unsuccessfully scrap for her affection.
Beauty dreams of a dance with Prince Orian Kenneth Tindall before his beastly transformation to the timeless backdrop of Debussy’s “Clair de lune”, developing a poignant forecast of their future together.
The simplicity of the plot is countered by Duncan Hayler’s staggering sets, which cleverly double-up as internal props. The audience finds Beauty sleeping on the colossal white rose which forms the centrepiece of the stage as Act III opens, while the Beast Ashley Dixon remembers his face as the Prince in a broken mirror. A melancholic splendour seeps from the stage, an effect echoed by the magic romanticism of the choreography.
Acts II and III are dramatised by a gothic setting featuring the sound of an omniscient organ. The Beast’s explosive anger is intensely showcased by Francis Poulenc’s “Organ Concerto”. The re-emergence of a monolithic organ set-piece at the closing wedding scene shows its power to depict the production’s emotional disharmony and eventual equilibrium.
Leebolt is exquisite as Beauty, her dancing and demeanour eclipsing most of the performances. Her minimal yet elegant costumes are functional – her metallic sequined dress in the final acts splits to the navel, allowing the audience to see the details and flow of her body’s movements – whilst still appearing as if it’s been stripped straight from a fairytale.
But it is Ashley Dixon’s flamboyant Beast that dominates most audience attention. His sparkling virility almost makes you want to see him sweep Beauty off her feet – not his comparatively non-descript princely alter-ego.
Beauty and the Beast continues at the Lyceum, Sheffield until 24 March.