Beauty and the Beast is the West Yorkshire Playhouse's Christmas offering for younger children and, despite the enchanted castle pictures in the programme, Mike Kenny’s version of the story relies on imagination to realise the magic rather than any Disney-style effects. A matinee audience of average age six, or thereabouts, found it totally involving.
Four muddled, but enthusiastic, players set up the action with constant promises that everything will be ready soon and requests for audience assistance in holding this or finding that. Eventually they settle into four roles: the Father (a rich Victorian merchant), Beauty (his beautiful and assuredly good daughter), his Cook and her rather slow-witted son, Francis. When the Father loses all his money, Beauty proves resistant to the concept of “toil” and remains as self-servingly vain as ever. It takes the encounter with the Beast (Francis, no less) to persuade her of the virtue of unselfish love.
Barney George’s ingenious and attractive designs emphasise the sense of make-do-and-mend. The advertisement-covered front page of an 1893 newspaper fills the back of the set and pieces of hugely oversized cutlery provide the required furniture and props. In contrast are the miniaturised dolls of the characters that people Beauty’s doll’s house - her substitute for harsh reality.
Katie Matthews is outstanding as Beauty. Spoilt, petulant and demanding, instantly seduced by luxury and extravagance but always suggesting the potential for the goodness that she constantly claims for herself. Dominic Gately gives a winning performance as the love-sick Francis and subtly transforms himself into a less than grotesque Beast. Louisa Eyo’s energetic and determined Cook and CP Hallam’s ineffectual Father complete a first-rate quartet. All four suggest an underlying sense of fun and mischief and make the audience complicit in their play-acting, creating dramatic horse-back rides through wind and wild weather with the minimum assistance from improvised props.
Under Gail McIntyre’s skilful direction Beauty and the Beast manages the difficult and extremely satisfying feat of persuading its audience, young and old alike, that it’s all good fun. A silly romp, resulting in a serious love story with an impeccable moral message.