Cold, dark days make me want to see feel-good theatre, especially in the run up to the holidays. Bonus points if it’s colourful, has some depth and at least some non-formulaic elements, even in a classic story. Polka Theatre’s Beauty & the Beast for ages 6-12 meets these criteria with a surprisingly complex storyline that keeps adult attention as well as kids’. Despite the target age range, there is some great humour and a touch of innuendo adults will appreciate (kids definitely won’t get it), sumptuous set and lighting and an adapted, relevant script. Some of the performances are wooden from the dated language and there are some dodgy movement-based transitions, but the school group audience was quiet and focused for most of the nearly two hours with interval.
Charles Way’s adaptation of the traditional story gives a much wider context than the Disney film and is more relatable to a modern, young audience. Belle is still the main character, but we get to know her father, Mr Godwin (Simon Holmes) and sister Cassandra (Géhane Strehler) well. Belle and Cassandra are complete opposites: Belle’s bookish, a visionary and frightened by most things; Cassandra loves boys, pretty dresses and adventures. The two bicker regularly and their money-driven merchant father is tired of it, a family dynamic that many children will recognize. Beginning in London and moving to the remote countryside when Mr Godwin loses his fortune, the girls also have to cope with big life changes and overcome adversity.
The women’s performances are consistently stronger than the men’s. Ritu Arya’s Belle is convincingly performed with a wonderfully dry sense of humour and an excellent character arc that isn’t overly saccharine. She carries the story and its energy well without being a stereotypical children’s performer, dealing with the old fashioned language brilliantly. Géhane Strehler is great contrast, giving young girls two opposite ideals to potentially relate to. Both have flaws, virtues and detail. Emma Cater is a sinister housekeeper for Jason Eddy’s Beast, a gentle man with stylized physicality and an imposing presence. Eddy doesn’t quite manage to carry that through after his transformation, but it’s so close to the end that it doesn’t matter much.
The set is layers of swirling panels that change colour and glow according to location, with the Beast’s castle the richest of them all. Laura McEwen’s set and Ian Scott’s lighting work together in wonderful harmony, with the occasional addition of puppets. Stage combat from RC Annie also adds a visual component, but the fights are slower that fight speed and brief. Some of the transitions lag and have abstract movement to fill the time, but this doesn’t contribute to the story and usually look pretty naff. Costumes, also by McEwen indicate the characters’ circumstances and changes in social class, but the highlight is the headdress and mask for the Beast.
Though there are still age and gender stereotypes, the adapted script empowers the young female characters. The detail and length will occupy adults as well as children and Way’s story is excellently constructed. With wonderfully visual design and a stirring score by Julian Butler, this is a lovely production harking back to the classical story without the glitz of Disney-fication or the panto cheese, and a solid option for a family holiday show.
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