REVIEW: Unconventional fairy tale has a strange magical atmosphere

Beauty and the Beast, The Archway Theatre, Horley, Wednesday, January 22

It’s always interesting to think about the many weird and wonderful ways people can tell a story.

This version of Beauty and the Beast, directed by Eddie Redfern (originally written by Laurence Boswell), is a strange but smart tale full of bizarre characters and events.

However, it’s not just the script that creates an unusual tone. Arguably, the most striking aspect of this play is the minimalist approach to set design. The stage is white with a pair of boxes and hardly any other decorations, aside from some elegant costumes.

Instead of using props, the performers act as the props…and the scenery. One actress, for example, plays a vanity table, while two more perform as the wardrobe. The chorus also teams up to form a rose bush, a ship and a series of palace corridors with nothing but sticks and sheets to help them.

This kind of ‘physical theatre’ seems odd at first but the audience soon gets used to it. There is narration too, so it’s almost like watching a moving representation of a storybook, rather than a play in the traditional sense. This style works best when the action shifts to the Palace of The Beast, evoking the surreal lair where inanimate objects come to life and the enchanted sights seem to defy logic.

The play doesn’t just rely on its quirky style, though.

Leila Mehdoubi is good as the quiet, yet courageous Beauty, delivering her lines (some in French) to give a convincing sense of the heroine’s inner conflicts.

Ed Pithie has a strong stage presence as the Beast, bringing to life a character who starts off scary and savage, but becomes somewhat comical and ultimately lovable. Ed’s vocal work is impressive too. His guttural roaring and heavy breathing really conveys the creature’s physical strength.

Alison Spanton is also memorable as the stern but benevolent witch who seems to know more than she’s revealing.

The Beast’s palace could be very sinister but there is plenty of comic relief from two robot servants. Ben Andrew and Eleanor Tremeer-Jackson give great performances as the Beast’s semi-helpful androids. They are definitely the funniest characters, bickering and flirting in a parody of human relationships.

Comedy outside the Beast’s palace comes from Katie Andrew and Steph Reeves as Beauty’s selfish sisters – Marie-Claire and Veronique. They’re too boozy and incompetent to be truly wicked, but their deluded views of themselves give the audience plenty to laugh at.

David Burton is likeable as Beauty’s bumbling father. His strengths lie more in the comic moments than the dramatic ones but his first encounter with the Beast’s palace is particularly well acted.

The younger performers – Connor Pimm as Phillipe and Sam Dinnage as Emile – do well too at taking on the script’s challenging dialogue.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast is a largely successful and refreshing take on a well-known story that creates a uniquely magical atmosphere.

By Lawrence Smith