PANTOMIME : Beauty, without the beastliness

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The British pantomime is faced with a dichotomy: a choice between tacky glamour and bogus traditionalism. Oh yes it is. Panto producers either stuff their bills with Gladiators and scrag-end TV comics, or reach for their Angela Carter to pursue a faery formal purity that belies the genre's origins in the commercialism of Victorian theatre. Truth is, pantomime unpolluted by the contemporary is as mythical as Mother Goose: 19th-century shows such as Dick Whittington and his Sensation Cat (1861) were baggy and plotless, full of extravagant stage effects, comic songs and topical gags about gorillas.

The team responsible for Beauty and the Beast at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, have obviously given some thought to this problem. There are no tatty variety acts or glib name-checks for Neighbours, nor any suggestion that hitting puberty turns you into a werewolf. Instead, writer David Cregan and director Philip Hedley have conjured up a likeably raucous melodrama that's an unpretentious combination of faux-Victorianisms, schoolyard rudery and stage legerdemain. And, in time-honoured tradition, the audience is full of children chucking Maltesers down into the stalls.

Other pantomime conventions have been observed: sweetly be-ribboned Beauty (Davina Perera) has a pair of ugly sisters in crinolines, a put-upon father (Jim McManus, a living Cruikshank illustration) who loses his fortune speculating in the City, and a dominatrix housekeeper (Michael Beltenshaw), who trills a delightfully morbid number parodying Victorian virtues - "Though Dead, She Kept Her Word". Pitted against this Dickensian domesticity is Delores the Witch (a charmingly vulgar Yvonne Edgell). Costumed as cross between Cruella De Vil and Molly Parkin, the villainess swigs gin from an oil can, and exhorts a sleeping Beauty to dream of "ciggies and drink". In search of her 273rd husband, Delores picks on the effete King Tom of Belgrovia (Joseph Noble). "Marry me," she demands. "Sorry, I don't do that sort of thing," flaps His Majesty, who is promptly transmogrified into the eponymous monster.

Noble's Beast, a lolloping creature of fur, hooves, and reptilian claws, is more Dr Moreau than Jean Marais (Cocteau's Bete), and his monster-suit caused a flurry of scepticism among the audience's X-Files-literate 10-year-olds. Noble is also lumbered with the bits of script where the irony button has been switched off, but anyone capable of belting out a cheesy romantic ballad dressed as a bipedal skunk deserves some sort of credit.

Ultimately, the strength of Stratford's Beauty and the Beast is that it doesn't patronise its audience with second-rate material you couldn't get away with at any other time of year. There's no big-thighed principal boy murdering "You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings", the stage is uncluttered with Australian soap stars and there's no retreat to back-to-basics traditionalism. In fact, the children contributed most of the show's contemporary references. When Snowdrop the fairy sought ideas from the house as to what might cheer up a forlorn Beauty, suggestions included "stuffed-crust pizza" and "Chicken McNuggets". "The Spice Girls" was a helpful contribution from the dress circle, but I think that was someone's dad.

Theatre Royal, E15 (0181 534 0310), to 25 Jan.

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