Beauty & the Beast, Polka Theatre

Beauty and the Beast - Polka Theatre - 20 November 2015 Writer - Charles Way Director - Roman Stefanski Designer - Laura McEwen Music - Julian Butler

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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Gorilla, Polka Theatre

Gorilla Revival - Polka TheatreHannah is a little girl that loves gorillas. She spends all day drawing them, watching programmes about them, and talking about them. She tries to share her love for these wonderful animals with her dad, but he’s too busy. Then, on the night of her birthday she received a small toy gorilla that comes to life and takes her on an adventure, teaching her about kindness and gratitude, and her dad then gives her the best birthday ever. This classic children’s book, Gorilla, is charmingly brought to life with two actors, two puppets and a detailed but lo-tech set for children aged four to eight at Polka Theatre.

The story is a wonderful little adventure, executed quietly and calmly, without special effects and updating to reflect present day. Even the music sounds like it comes from a 1970s lounge bar. Initially I found it all terribly old fashioned, but considering the technology children are bombarded with today, it makes a refreshing change and reminds us that children don’t need an ipad and hi-tech toys to entertain them by the time they’re 3. After Hannah’s introduction, the sequence to establish her day-to-day routine and dad’s busyness is rather repetitive; the children in the audience became a bit fidgety and chatty. Once Hannah’s birthday arrives and the adventure begins through puppet versions of the characters, the audience of little ones becomes quiet and focused. Set changes tend towards the lengthy side, but the reveals that come from the set flips, rope tugs and lighting changes are choreographic in and of themselves.

The puppets suit the design of the set, old fashioned but still detailed and expressive. Actors Ceri Ashcroft and Phil Yarrow are good, with lovely chemistry, though at times it was hard to hear Ashcroft during the songs. The barometer for children’s theatre is the children in the audience though, and these maintained a steady focus once Hannah and her gorilla friend meet. They took some time to settle and weren’t grasped by the beginning exposition, but the rest of the play more than compensated.

There were some lovely staging choices by director Roman Stefanski. Particularly notable are the puppets coming into the audience as it transformed into a cinema and watching the audience as zoo animals from outside the bars of the cage. Transforming the human sized set into a puppet sized one also enchanted the audience, both adult and child. This is particularly praise-worthy as the transitions were quite lengthy and all changes (or most of them) looked operated solely by the performers.

This was my first visit to the Polka. What I found most disappointing was that the house was only half full. The theatre could certainly do with the revenue full houses generate, and this production makes a refreshing change from the fancy bells and whistles of West End family shows. The building emanates a warm sense of community that local families should enjoy more often, and it’s a break from fast and loud modern life. After all, people my age and older thrived in a childhood without the internet and handheld gadgets. Gorilla not only tells a sweet story with a strong female child as a lead, it proves that children today can enjoy live entertainment that quietly focuses on old fashioned adventure storytelling.


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