Once upon a time, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote her own versions of several fairytales that have been enchanting us for hundreds of years, tales that were then dramatised by Melly Still and Tim Supple.
This was back in 2004 at the Bristol Old Vic, and as the resulting production now appears for the second consecutive year at the Hampstead Theatre, the spell shows little sign of waning.
The six tales presented to us by Still’s talented ensemble run the whole narrative gamut, from the satisfyingly naughty humour of The Emperor’s New Clothes – in which Jack Tarlton’s preening, exposed Emperor is discreetly shielded by a series of increasingly silly objects – to the tender romance of Beauty and the Beast, to the out and out gore of obscure tale The Juniper Tree.
Stories such as these are all too often sanitised for younger audiences, but Duffy, Still and Supple wisely recognise that children relish the rude and gruesome bits just as much as, if not more than, their accompanying adults.
This may well be the definition of family theatre, delighting both big and small kids in the audience. Much of this delight results from the overwhelming inventiveness of Still’s masterful direction and the design that she has dreamed up with Anna Fleischle.
Chairs, dresses and spinning-wheels dangle from ropes, lowered in as required, handfuls of paper become snow and projected drawings provide backdrops. Animals frequently populate this fairytale world, but they are evoked with little more than a rudimentary udder or pair of hooves; particularly memorable is Kelly Williams’ head-tossing, wide-eyed colt.
The real beauty and magic, however, is created not by what is seen but by what is left unseen. While dazzlingly ingenious, Still’s concepts are never showy and rely more on imagination than technical wizardry. Usually narrating in third person and stepping in and out of the action, the cast invite audience members into the creative process, unveiling the inner workings of storytelling without stripping it of its magic.
Stories, as demonstrated by the rich heritage of the fairytales presented to us on the stage of the Hampstead Theatre, are an integral part of human nature, and some of the greatest entertainment comes from the simple skill of telling a good yarn. Storytelling may be one of the oldest and most basic forms of theatre, but Beasts and Beauties illustrates beyond doubt that it’s definitely still got it.