In the RSC's delightful new version of Beauty and the Beast, the heroine's spoilt brat of a youngest brother is obsessed by ice-cream and spends most of the play holed up with chemistry set, concocting evermore disgusting flavours, such as pigeon-liver sorbet, in aluminium cones. At the end, though, he manages to produce sticks of standard sickly candy floss, some of which are chucked into the stalls. Giving the now transformed Beast a portion, he explains that he's now decided to go for "the middle-of-the-road family market - you know, more for the kids". It comes across as something of an in-joke, for nothing could manage to be more delicious, while steadfastly refusing to opt for the middle-of-the-road or to condescend to the kids by palming them off with sugary pap, than this enchanting Beauty and the Beast, written and directed by Laurence Boswell.
The Disney adaptation, a huge hit on stage as well as film, did not have enough imagination to leave anything to the imagination. Using a nine-strong black-clad chorus and a basic wooden box set, Boswell's production dispenses with literalism and creates a brilliantly improvised world that is completed in the mind's eye of the audience. When Beauty's family have to cross a muddy field, a huge swatch of brown lycra is stretched across the stage which, with the chorus poking at the wary travellers from underneath, gives the comic impression of a treacherously quaking quagmire.
Given a tingling eastern tinge by the sound of sitars and gamelans, the Beast's palace is summoned into being by many-hued light and shadow. In the magical Room of Mirrors scene, Aoife McMahon's wry, red-headed Beauty romps through a bewildering multiplicity of luminous red frames constantly shifted around by the chorus against a purple background. By some bizarre trick of the imagination, she and the Beast (Adam Levy) become each other's reflections and perform a tango as such. "See, see with more than your eyes" is the message relayed by the refrain of the most powerful song, reminding you that this fairy tale is in agreement with A Midsummer Night's Dream that "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind". You could say that this production - with its wonderfully suggestive design (Jeremy Herbert) and costumes (Kandis Cook) - stimulates the audience to exercise just that faculty.
At first, I thought that the production - which Boswell has developed from a studio-sized staging that played, to great acclaim at the Young Vic in 1996 - might be a bit too arty for this larger proscenium-staged venue. But I was wrong, for there is also a winning streak of vulgarity here, with a pair of female siblings so spiteful and stupid they make the Ugly Sisters look like the Brontës and, as servants in the Beast's palace, a male and female robot whose mechanisms have a tendency to get stuck. This pair also have the feel of being a self-reflexive gag, because no show could be less lazily reliant on hi-tech gadgetry for its magic.
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