Beauty and the Beast
Adapted by Theresa Heskins from the original novel by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Peruse the list of Christmas shows that are programmed by UK theatres and each year there is one that can be seen on a large number of stages. The 2021 favourite appears to be Beauty and the Beast.
Rather than going down the traditional route Theresa Heskins, artistic director of Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic, has gone back to the original. She has taken Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 story of La Belle et la Bête, the oldest-known variant of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, and adapted it so that it appeals to grown-ups as well as children.
Villeneuve was ahead of her time. Her version went against convention by having a male character who was trapped and had to be freed by a young woman. It also featured the female lead making her own choices and going against her father’s wishes – almost unheard of in the 18th century.
Heskins has an impressive track record of writing Christmas shows. Her adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen won the 2017 UK Theatre award for best show for children and young people. Her productions have also been produced all over the UK.
The first thing to take from Heskins’ Beauty and the Beast is that the ability of children to engage in a story should not be underestimated. The first quarter of the show is quite complex as the presence of a warrior queen, goblins and robotic servants is revealed along with the back story of the two main characters.
Yet on the afternoon I saw Beauty and the Beast the audience which consisted mainly of schoolchildren sat enraptured throughout. They were mesmerized by flowers appearing out of the floor, a rose seemingly thrown from one side of the auditorium to another and a dance featuring Bella gracefully “flying” as she danced with the Beast.
Rhiannon Skerritt gives a delightful portrayal of Bella, initially stubborn at the Beast’s incessant marriage proposals only to melt when she sees behind his outer appearance.
Nicholas Richardson is sufficiently scary and monstrous as the Beast whose towering stature is enhanced as he confidently moves around the stage on prosthetic blades. There is great sympathy for him as he confesses that all he wants to do is to experience what it is to be human.
The audience is similarly receptive towards Polly Lister who played the lead in The Snow Queen. Here she is the Warrior Queen who has been given a heart of stone.
Jonathan Charles also catches the eye as the appropriately named servant Wheeliam, serenely mastering a hover board as he undertakes all the daily chores in the Beast’s castle, leaving Bella frustrated as she has nothing to do. And Danielle Bird is feisty as Rajnhildre the Goblin Queen, causing mischief and mayhem before order is restored.
The 11-strong ensemble which features some actors who are also proficient musicians all give commendable performances.
Christmas shows, especially pantomimes, are often cited as the first taste of live theatre for children. No doubt the youngsters who see Beauty and the Beast will want to find out whether other productions will captivate them in the same way.
* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website