A fairy-tale adaptation by Mike Kenny seems to be a near-universal Christmas choice in Yorkshire this year, but Beauty and the Beast, by the Lawrence Batley Theatre and the Nottingham company Engine House, is rather different. Instead of the inclusive style of writing/production, with performers/characters establishing themselves informally with the audience, this begins in full house-lights-down, stage-lights-up style, with a permanent set and well-amplified vocals over ingeniously arranged accompaniments – in other words, this is Mike Kenny West End-style, even Hollywood maybe.
There is much to be said for it. The cast of four put over Julian Butler’s show-tunes (some rather conventional, others droll, the occasional Caribbean dance rhythm infectious) with pizazz and sail around the stage to Emma Annetts’ choreography. Lydia Denno’s set is a characterful mix of angles, arches and stylised roses and its obstacle-course nature is well exploited in Matt Aston’s assured direction. However, Beauty and the Beast doesn’t seem to me to hit its target audience with the precision of most children’s plays from the same stable. The total absence of audience participation is one aspect. Another is the lack of clarity in a narration carried to some extent by songs with a high quota of big words. A good-sized mid-morning audience of primary school pupils was attentive rather than rapt.
As so often with Mike Kenny adaptations, the given story is told via narration by characters involved in, or on the fringe of, the action. In this case the servants of “The Master” explain to the newly-arrived Boots the terrible trials he has endured, with his financial collapse, his retreat to the countryside and the involvement (finally, happily) of his beautiful daughter with a Beast of disgusting table manners and delicate sensibility. Equally typically, the magic sneaks up stealthily, with the scenes between Beauty and the Beast surprisingly moving at times. The internal dramatic logic, however, is not as convincing as it might be, with the role of the Cook/Fairy Godmother decidedly fuzzy.
However, Matt Aston delivers a production of polish and pace, headed by a delightful Beauty (Helen Woolf), on an amusing and touching progress from self-centred to soft-centred. Laura Sheppard brings a knowing energy and slick timing to the Cook, Darren Benedict subtly and smoothly sketches the differences between the Butler and the Master, and Julian Hoult’s Beast is a neat amalgam of ferocity and the gentle gaucheness of Francis the kitchen boy.
Beauty and the Beast runs at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield until 30 December. For further information visit www.thelbt.org