Eat your heart out Walt, director Theresa Heskins has made it real. Clever, funny, hilarious even, but never sentimental, the New Vic’s take on Beauty and the Beast is a joy from start to finish.
From the moment Danielle Bird’s Goblin Queen bursts onto the stage with her band of mischievous followers, we know we are in safe hands. Then, her nemesis, the Warrior Queen, arrives, an armour-plated Polly Lister wielding goblin killers, one in each hand, and scattering goblins to the four winds. She pays the price for her hubris and so does her son. No spoilers here.
Enter Isabella, our eponymous Beauty, played by a delightful and petite Rhiannon Skerrit, with her sisters Nigella and Prunella, Rhyanna Alexander-Davis and Solaya Sang giving as greedy a pair of narcissists as you’ll find outside the Cabinet.
Disney peopled the Beast’s palace with animated objects. Heskins has an equally clever solution, which ties in better to the story, but does involve some skilled balancing from Jonathan Charles as Wheeliam. The clue is in the name.
Given the build, the Beast can be a disappointment. Not real enough, not beastly enough. Not here. Nicholas Richardson as the Beast is extremely real. He towers over Isabella and his growl is convincing. But the cleverness of Heskins’ adaptation of the original, La Belle et la Bête by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, published in 1740, is that we quickly learn that he is a beast by nature, compelled by his form to be beastly, but cruelly aware of the ghost of his humanity.
The exploration of what it means to be human is his journey, the discovery of the Beast’s true nature is hers. If this sounds a bit pompous for a family Christmas show, it really isn’t. It’s deftly handled and is fundamental to the resolution of the plot. And when they finally danced together, Reader, I cried. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I tell you that the transformation from Beast to Man happens in full view and is convincingly done.
It’s not a musical, but there’s lots of music, composed by James Atherton, musical genius of this parish and New Vic regular. And why he isn’t famous, I have no idea. The music is played by members of the cast, including Lucinda Freeburn, Bella Band and Frederik Pahus, who are all in their first professional jobs and are making a good start doubling as goblins and servants as well as court musicians. The musical director is Farhaan Shah, another regular, who leads and plays the violin like a Chetham’s and RNCM scholar should. He’s a mean beat-boxer too.
Adapted by the director, Heskins is a woman who clearly knows what she’s doing, and the set is designed by Laura Willstead and the costumes by Lis Evans. The choreography is by Bev Norris-Edmunds who is everywhere this Christmas. The dancing here didn’t look a bit like her Oldham Coliseum Aladdin, which I saw last week. A lot of other people helped to make this show a success and I congratulate them.
If I have a quibble it’s that the celebration at the end could have been a bit longer. “Longer?” I hear you say? Normally, I can’t get out fast enough, but I could have stood a few more minutes of rejoicing. God knows we need some. I’ve seen lots of new Vic Christmas shows and this is one of the best. And Margot (5) and Dan (8) agreed with me. What are you waiting for?
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Main image: Polly Lister as Warrior Queen in the New Vic Theatre’s production of Beauty and the Beast. Photo credit: Andrew Billington.
Beauty and the Beast is on at the New Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent until January 29, 2022. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.