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Beauty and the Beast (Colchester, Mercury Theatre)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Somehow you know this is not quite going to be the traditional sort of pantomime from the moment you take your seat and look at the framing set which Foxton has designed. One half (stage right) of the footlight shades are gleaming gold bubbles; on stage left they’re blasted winged shapes, bathed in an eerie purple and green light. There’s obviously more going on than just the familiar story.

Writer and director Janice Dunn puts over a succession of moral, social and ecological messages in a child-friendly manner. In fact, the whole show is much more of a play with music and dancing than your run-of-the-mill pantomime. To the point where the traditional characters of the Dame (Ignatius Anthony as Twiggy), Beauty's father (Roger Delves-Broughton) and the duo of comic villains (David Tarkenter as Scuffle and Thomas Richardson as Swag)  – not to mention the singalong – almost seem like excrescences.

We learn from woodland fairy Rosa – a sweet-voiced Josephine Warren – that the forest and its inhabitants are being blighted by the evil Botoxio. Clare Humphrey with her tousled hair, glittering asymmetrical makeup and with a lethal zapper always to hand makes her one of the most dominating villainesses ever to earn an audience’s boos and hisses. But we are also shown by a framed mime sequence that there’s a reason for her malevolence.

She was the daughter of parents who lavished all their attention on their son, Leo. In her frustration and through scientific experiment, she succeeded in brewing a concoction which tuned the boy into a beast. Pete Ashmore is very good as this shaggy half-wildman, half-animal creature, destroying as much through frustration as through instinct. It takes the sympathetic and clear-sighted Belle (Emily Bull) to be able to extract the man from the beast, not visibly but emotionally.

Cydney Uffindell-Phillips’ choreography and the musical direction of Graeme D Fresne are energetic and produce some enjoyable moments. Dale Superville as Rolo the Ranger (aka The Pieman) is extremely funny and deservedly a great success with the audience, especially in his exchanges with glove puppet Squirrel Nutcase, and the mobile hen-house of chickens. This is a musical play with quite complex ideas put over in clear language which makes no concession to any dumbing-down of either the issues or the vocabulary. It works splendidly.


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