The story of a young girl who learns to love a disfigured and frightening
beast, freeing him from a curse and turning him back into a handsome prince,
can be traced back to the mid 16th century.
Of course, there have been many incarnations since then, not least legions of
pantomimes, the glittering Walt Disney musical and animated film, and most
recently, Birmingham Royal Ballet's latest telling.
Here at the RSC, writer and director Laurence Boswell has returned to the
original story to create a piece of accessible, beautiful and intelligent
The opening reveals a tableau introducing Beauty and her family,
establishing their history and characters - particularly how their merchant
father lost his wealth and how he came to be imprisoned in the Beast's
enchanted palace, given the choice of being eaten alive, or sending his
daughter Beauty to marry the Beast.
But this Beauty is no docile and passive child; Aoife McMahon instead
makes her a feisty young woman who challenges the Beast and his ways,
realising along the way that her heart belongs to him.
My only criticism of the production is that Beauty only arrives at the
palace just before the interval, and while act one does a wonderful job of
setting up the story and characters, it takes a tad too long to do it,
leaving an awful lot of storytelling to do in act two.
Indeed, the blossoming friendship between Beauty and her Beast then feels
somewhat glossed over and rushed, and it's a surprise to hear that we are
suddenly seven years later.
That said, the production reaches far deeper levels of emotion than the
sanitised Disney or saccharine pantomimes could ever even aspire to, due
largely to the beautiful performance of Adam Levy as the Beast, a
"gentleman ashamed by the creature while the creature is confused by the
gent". Levy's Beast is frightening while retaining our sympathy through
glimmers of sadness and vulnerability. And from a purely female perspective,
neither does the tall and dark actor disappoint when he is finally
transformed into handsome prince!
Top marks also go to Gary Sefton and Dorothy Atkinson as Beast's Man and
Maid respectively - two robots who finally meet and enjoy an utterly
hilarious "I can do anything better than you"- style sequence.
Jeremy Herbert's sets are minimal, with the large chorus of actors and
dancers used to create almost ballet-like images, ranging from a muddy field
to snowstorm to the Beast's horses, with great effect.
And the overall feeling is one of a terribly unusual, brilliant and magical
show which, not unlike the Beast himself, deserves love and appreciation,
even if it does take a little time to warm to.