The last time I saw a production at Christmas in Barnsley was a version of A Christmas Carol, a one-man-show from the point of the view Jacob Marley. I wouldn’t say I was especially into festive theatre, specifically pantos. However, the opportunity arose to catch Engine House’s production of Beauty and the Beast at The Civic, and after catching previews of their stage set, I thought it was make a refreshing change to the usual festive fare. The stage set is like a cross between Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and Upstairs Downstairs, acting as both servants quarters and the Beast’s castle, beautifully produced and adorned with black and white checkerboard and Charles Rennie Mackintosh roses.
The pace of the dialogue in the first half is fast, and at first I thought maybe a little too fast for the really little ones to keep up with, or at least it was for me after three pints.
The first half of the production plays out a lot like the lighter moments in Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked The Musical – something like the Life and Times of Beauty and the Geek. I make no apologies for seeing Wicked several times, but that means I see more than a passing resemblance to some of its characters. The four strong, very funny and fantastic cast here play characters not too dissimilar to Wicked’s Glinda, Boq, Madam Morrible and Doctor Dillamond. Two songs even sounded like they were influenced by two of its numbers, Popular and The Wizard and I. I even recall the word ‘Wicked’ being key to a joke at some point. However, despite this… it’s brilliant and I can imagine much of the young audience are unfamiliar with that musical anyway. And if you’re going to be influenced, be influenced by the best.
The lyrics, instrumentation and performances are brilliant throughout, especially the actress who is playing Beauty, who reminded me a little of Sheridan Smith’s turn in Legally Blonde. Her version of Beauty is like a mix of Glinda the Good Witch and Rugrat’s Angelica or a more glamorous Veruca Salt; while Francis is a sulky Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones.
Both acts rely on a good balance of humour and horror-lite fairytale scares. The second act being the stand-out for me; it starts with a 50s ditty, cleverly referring to the audience out in the lobby queuing for the loo, checking out next seasons acts, munching on mince pies and queuing for pop. I’ve never seen that done before. This act as whole, appears to me much more originally and much more enjoyable. The story and use of the set is clever, and the dancing furniture is a camp and funny doff of the cap towards Disney version of Grimm’s tale.
While I reckon the really little ones might not get some of the faster dialogue, there is enough strong song, dance and special effects to keep them enticed throughout, and seems to be going out of its way to cater for adults and children alike without having to pander to Pantomime traditions. Throughout, there were gasps and awe from the little ones, especially at the Beast and the regular funny facepulling of the Fairy Godmother.
Despite the odd copycat moment, Beauty and the Beast keeps you on your toes. The set, the cast and the humour ensures that even with the scares, there is always a light-hearted moment right behind you. And while not altogether Christmasy, I’d much prefer something like this – a brilliant alternative to cheesy pantos. Clever, funny, and definitely wicked!
A number of performances are sol out now or limited availability, so if you want to go catch a performance of Beauty and the Beast at the Civic, go to barnsleycivic.co.uk for ticketing information.
For more information about Engine House’s Beauty and the Beast go to www.enginehousetheatre.com