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La Bete (OFS Studio, Oxford)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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It is somewhat surprising that the winner of the 1992 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy should not be better known – yet David Hirson’s La Bete has rarely been seen in the UK since the original West End production. Granted the title is in French (which can confuse some theatre-goers) and it is entirely written in rhyming verse – but that should not put you off. It is a thought-provokingly clever script which conceals hidden depths within the witty use of language. Plus it has a barn-storming central role which is a gift to any character actor with a penchant for scene-stealing and funny voices.

All credit to Helen Taylor and ElevenOneTheatre for mounting this revival. It is not an easy play to approach – it requires an attention to detail and some outstanding actors to make it work. Luckily Taylor has assembled a core team who can do the complexities of the script justice.

The plot is relatively simple – concerning the clash between a revered playwright and a street comedian in a battle between high and low art. However this apparent simplicity masks a philosophically interesting debate as to the nature of the creative process and the value we place on culture.

At the heart of the play is the coarse comedian Valere – played with brio, dexterity and enormous panache by Bill Moulford. From the moment he arrives on stage, he is unstoppable. I don’t think I have seen a more committed performance from a non-professional actor. His comic timing is near perfect and he captivates the audience completely – no mean task considering his opening speech runs for well over fifteen minutes.

Opposite him, Phillip Cotterill makes much of the more careful Elomire. A man hide-bound by convention and a conviction that he is right – Elomire is a less showy than his adversary but Cotterill works well in this thoughtful role. His exasperation and determination always evident even when the focus is elsewhere.

Amongst the talented supporting cast, Colin Burnie and Ida Persson make the greatest impression. Burnie, as ever, is in full command of the language and the stage – at times imperious, at others almost childlike. Persson has only a few words to utter (all of which are monosyllables that rhyme with ‘do’) and yet she offers a captivating portrayal of the rather odd maid. She has a flair for physical comedy that lights up her moments centre-stage.

For such an accomplished script, it is incredible that it is so little known here in the UK. With a talented cast and a polished production, this is the ideal opportunity to discover a hidden gem. Brave the elements and go. You will not be disappointed.


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