Beauty and the Beast, National Theatre: Cottesloe, London

Animal magnetism leaves children in the pink
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The Independent Culture

Last Christmas, Justin Salinger was adorable as a goggled, glove puppet-wielding goldfish in Katie Mitchell's adaptation of Dr Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. Now he is casting an edgier spell over a young audience as the Man in Pink, the fairy master of ceremonies in an enchanting and hilarious version of Beauty and the Beast that Mitchell has devised with the dramatist Lucy Kirkwood.

The endlessly suggestive myth has been given a knockabout, vaudeville framework. We are in a musical-hall theatre, where Mr Pink presides as a subversive and more than faintly intimidating magician. There is something camp and uncanny about him, clad in his pink top hat and tails, tricked out with ladies' court shoes and eye-shadow. If you wanted to create a kiddies' Kit Kat Klub, you would put this spiky, fey phenomenon in charge.

"I expect your parents often tell you that it's very wicked to steal things," he announces. "They're wrong." He points out that if Beauty's father had not filched the rose, she would never have been forfeit to the Beast and there would have been no story.

The tale of a creature liberated from a deforming curse by a love that learns to see beyond scary appearances is comically hostage here to a running wrangle between Mr Pink and Cecile (lovely Kate Duchêne), his Gallic grump of an assistant. Mutinous because he will never let her sing her song, she literally pulls the lever on the proceedings. Later, in a fit of vengeful pique, he... well, I won't spoil it for you.

You could argue that such shenanigans upstage the central drama. But I want to contrast this show with the Menier's production of The Invisible Man, in which a similar music-hall framework proves an irrelevant cop-out, substituting cod spoofing for genuine terror. Here is a much finer effort at imaginative integration and not just because of the spooky hints of Mr Pink's connection with the story or the endearingly ludicrous way in which his relationship with Cecile is wrenched into echoing that between the titular pair.

Our fairy MC also employs an unnerving device called a Thought Snatcher, a metal cap that acts as a sort of prying cerebral stethoscope. Clamped to the head of Sian Clifford's striking, self-possessed Beauty, it lets us listen in on her changing attitudes to the Beast, a hairy, looming, wolverine creature who, in Mark Arends's alarming and touching performance, stalks round his elegant palace on stilts, radiating the violent frustration of imprisonment in the wrong body.

Mirrors misbehave with sad silent-film footage of the dead, dying or distant. Shadow play whisks us through sequences of narrative with witty silhouettes depicting insubordinate topiary that shifts when Beauty's back is turned and cakes and jellies that shake with mirth at a good human joke. There is delightfully droll music, whether in a delirious harpsichord duet played on the dining table's invisible keyboard, signalling the couple's growing rapport, or in the climactic, celebratory rendering of "Nobody Loves a Fairy When She's Forty".

Apply the Though Snatcher to any child on the way out and I reckon you will hear a desire for more theatre, soonest.

To 4 January (020 7452 3000)

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