Beauty And The Beast
- A Musical Pantomime
Review by Emma Shane
© December 2004
There were times when I
wondered whether it would be worth travelling all the way down to
The next scene finds us in The
Square Of Honeypot Village, just as Beauty, played by Cassidy Janson,
enters with a pile of books she has bought. Also present are a chorus of girls,
both Gypsies and School Children (lead by a young woman in a teacher’s gown and
mortar board), are singing and dancing. Beauty leading them in a song about her
books. Brown-haired Cassidy looks attractive (yes a beauty), and sings
nicely. Enter two young men, namely
Simple Simon, played by Mark Osmand, and the very handsome Anton, played
by Darren Bennett. Most of the Gypsy ladies are crazy for Anton,
however, the one girl who really attracts him, is of course Beauty, but she’s
not interested in him. They sing and dance a duet together. Yes, last I get to
see a bit of Darren Bennett’s dancing. This sequence put me very much in
mind of those good old
We find Beauty’s father, played by children’s television veteran Brian Cant, in his workshop, with his Balloonamatic III. It is supposed to increase the size of balloons that have already blown up by hand. However, when he tries it, all it does is send the balloons whizzing out into the audience. I found it one of the funnier pieces of slapstick in this pantomime. I don’t often like slapstick, but I enjoyed that. Alfredo decides that perhaps he should nail down the balloons, and picks up his hammer to do so, but there seems to be some kind of an echo. He starts asking the hammer what it is doing, before finally realising that his daughter has returned home and wants to come in. However, he still can’t stop trying to talk to his hammer. Brian Cant makes a fine job of portraying a slightly confused old man, and his presence among the cast, adds interest for the grown ups in the audience, as I’m sure a good number of us remember seeing him on television when we were children. Back to the show, Beauty has been rather disturbed by Anton’s behaviour towards her, for she’s too young to yet be sure if she knows what love is. Her father comforts her by telling her to Ac-centu-ate The Positive, which they then proceed to sing together. They sang this quite pleasantly, however, for those of us familiar with the Hot Shoe Shuffle British Cast Album, it didn’t sound quite right. But that’s only because of being accustomed to such a particularly fine version of the song, especially with the knowledge that several people involved in that musical are also involved with this pantomime, including the lady who sang that song so uniquely on that album. Some singers have a talent for being able to make any song they sing so much their own, that after hearing them sing it, it is very hard to hear someone else that song without feeling that it doesn’t sound quite right. Back to the plot, and Beauty is going off into the forest to look for wood for the furnace.
In The Haunted Forest, The Sorceress and a group of smelly Trogs (played by the Junior Chorus), are clustered round a cauldron. Although she appeared in the first scene, this is really the one where Louise Plowright gets to really establish and make something of her character, and given her strengths as an actress, is makes sense to give her an opportunity to do so. The Sorceress comes across as a commanding efficient kind of figure, who is pretty determined to have things her own way. She is rather like a severe school-mistress, or a woman at the head of a business. And when she exclaimed to the Trogs “I don’t know why I keep Trogs”, her manner was very reminiscent of the scene in Mamma Mia when Donna The Dynamo said “Pepper and Eddie are my bar staff and general help, only generally they’re no help at all”, it had a similar air of being resigned, or not, to her lot. Being a pantomime, there is of course quite an emphasis on the fact that the story is being acted out in front of an audience, so it is necessary to include some jokes directed straight at the audience, and we have one here, when The Sorceress tells “You lot”, the children in the audience, if they don’t behave “I’ll send you all to Grange Hill”. Unfortunately the joke fell a bit flat, mainly, I think because a lot of the audience didn’t seem to have read the programme notes, and therefore didn’t realise that Louise is soon to be seen semi-regular in that long-running children’s drama. Back to the plot, and The Sorceress realising Beauty, wandering the forest may be about to come upon the castle, and could break the curse, decides to take no chances, and sends a Trog to intercept her.
Outside the castle we meet the Dame, Mrs Potty, played by Chris Hayward. Somehow, beacause of the curse the sorceress put on the castle, Mrs Potty keeps changing into different things, at this particular point the Dame is riding in the laundry basket, supposedly on a friend’s back. In fact I think Chris is wearing a costume that includes both the basket and the friend’s head. At The Castle, Mrs Potty is Chief Cook And Bottle Washer. I couldn’t help noticing that this classic Kander and Ebb song had, in good old pantomime tradition, very much rewritten many of the late Fred Ebb’s great lyrics. But nevertheless it is a very enjoyable version of this number, and The Rink, the show from which it comes, isn’t performed very often (because some people, mentioning no names, think the roller-skating could present problems). So it’s great to give the song an airing, and introduce it to a new audience. It’s also very nicely performed by The Dame, and the Juvenile Chorus, armed with scrubbing cloths. As the dame exits, on comes Beauty wandering in the forest, she’s almost got enough wood, just a little bit more, but she’s dangerously close to the castle. At this point she certainly encountered the Trogs, and I don’t quite remember whether she encountered The Sorceress as well. But there was certainly a scene, and it might well have been here, where The Sorceress says to someone, who has not yet been to the castle, that in the castle there lives a Prince who hasn’t been seen for many years, keeps himself to himself “You know what these Royals are like”, she speaks this line with a very silky voice, not a trace of her own northern (possibly Lancashire) tones (which she uses in most of this pantomime, and all of Mamma Mia), and yet it sounded vaguely familiar. (In fact it fact it reminded me a bit of the speaking voice of a certain Diva, whom I saw in a show, up the line, in Southampton a couple of years ago). Back to the plot, suddenly The Beast appears, looking all the more frightening with his cloak on. Beauty falls down in a faint, the other characters fade away, as the scene changes.
Beauty comes to her senses in The Throne Room of the castle, which seems to be empty save for an animatronic mouse (whose voice and performance do not seem to have a credit in the programme (I wonder whether it could have been Mark Osmond, since he seems to have a lot of voice-over credits in his resume). With Beauty conscious The Beast enters, this time without his cloak, but she faints again at his scary appearance. The Beast expresses his problems in song, an Andrew Lloyd Webber song from Sunset Boulevard (I think it was Everything’s As If We Never Said Goodbye), only with drastically rewritten lyrics. On cue Beauty comes round again, and now she’s got used to him she isn’t scared by The Beast’s appearance any more.
Meanwhile down in The Castle Kitchens who should enter but Alfredo looking for his daughter. Mrs Potty, now dressed in a Fairy Liquid bottle, tells him that Beauty is with The Prince, and they can’t be disturbed, so Alfredo helps Mrs Potty with a cake she is making. This is the pantomimes major slapstick scene. Not one of my personal favourites, because I’m not all that enamoured of slapstick. The joke with the chicken seemed a bit odd to me, as how can you have a chicken that is both “a battery hen” and “organ-ic”, I also wasn’t sure about spraying the audience with water-pistols (even though it wasn’t all that much water). However it was lovely to see how well Brian Cant played it, his best performed scene in the entire show. The years simply fell away, as he got right into it, and gave it everything, like the children’s television legend that he is. At the end of the scene the table is pushed away, and the middle curtain rises.
At the back of the stage sitting on steps in The Castle Ballroom is Beauty, singing Somewhere That’s Green (from Little Shop Of Horrors, but with rewritten lyrics) about how she and The Beast aren’t really all that different. Again Cassidy has a good singing voice, and just about manages, to meet the high performance standards set by some of the other members of the company. As she sings, the steps slide forward to the front of the stage (giving the stage-hands an opportunity to clean up further back without being seen), and as the number concludes, are pulled down on a platform at the front of the stage (the one The Prince and The Sorceress rose up on at the start).
Now we’re back in The Throne Room, where The Beast is wondering whether he can possibly make Beauty love him. She enters, and they sing a song about how everything changes when they are close together. I know this song had, as usually had its lyrics rewritten, and I wasn’t too sure what it actually was, although I think it may well have been another Andrew Lloyd-Webber number.
There’s just one important
member of the company whom we haven’t yet heard sing, but perhaps its a good
idea to save the best till last, or at least to close the first act. In The
Sorceress’s Lair, we find The Sorceresses and her Trogs. I could also
see two flying-wires obviously attached to her costume, so I guess she’ll end
this scene flying, which of course she does. After revealing that she’s seen
how Beauty and The Beast are getting on together, she announces that
she’s decided to change the plot, The Beast must die, Don’t Rain
On My Parade, with altered lyrics proclaiming There’s Never Going To
Be A Happy Ending Now. I found that although I didn’t initially recognise
the song (because of the altered lyrics) I can’t get the tune out of my head.
Although by Jule Styne, it has a pop-song like sound to it (perhaps because it
was originally written for Barbara Streisand). Well if you’re going to
put a song with that sort of style into a panto, then it makes sense to give it
to someone who will sing it well. And here we have the best el rock-chick
supremo to grace the wonderful world of
Act 2 opens Outside The Castle, with The Dame dressed as a tap dancing Tea Cup, with the song Anything Goes, soon joined by a Senior Chorus of plates, and finally joined by a Juvenile Chorus of biscuits. Personally I didn’t much like Chris Hayward’s rendition of the song itself. However, that is only because I am very fussy about how I like to hear certain Cole Porter songs (of which that is one), and truly there is only one person in the company of this pantomime who I think would have stood a cat in hells chance of singing this song in a way that I might actually have liked. So the fact that I personally didn’t much care for Chris’s singing is no reflection on his performance. If you’re not as fussy as I am about this song, then I’m sure you’d enjoy his version of it. That said, I did appreciate the alterations to the lyrics, and I very much enjoyed seeing how well this number was danced. For me, it was the tap dancing that actually made the number. I do like watching good tap dancing. It is also worth noting how good Chris Hayward’s legs are. With legs like that he’d be worthy of The Mark Morris Dance Group. On looks alone he could be quite convincing in drag, though his voice is a giveaway.
On to a number where I did enjoy the singing. In The Haunted Forrest The Sorceress, who has just entered subtly down the stairs to the audiences left, cannot comprehend why Beauty seems to be falling for The Beast, why nowadays don’t nice young girls like Beauty go for handsome men? She expresses this puzzlement in song, a number, (The Legend Of) Miss Baltimore Crabs (form Hairspray) with rewritten lyrics, this seemed to be a mixture of a pop influence combined with a hot jazzy one. Just the perfect combination of a number for that dynamo Louise Plowright, with her good dark powerful voice, to rip through like a vamp needing a man. She starts this number with her dancing, you might think that with Darren Bennett and Chris Hayward around that wouldn’t be room in the show for another decent dancer, but while as a dancer she might not be quite in their league, she jolly good all the same, and its nice to see her getting a chance to be a bit of a dancing queen. All in all a great number, and one that is rather difficult to follow, for it almost stopped the show.
In fact this was one moment
in the show where I truly felt there was an unbalanced. As an actress Louise
Plowright usually seems to be very good at keeping the balance of power
wherever its supposed to be. However, even she can’t help ending such a
potential showstopper as that number on a high, and as she exits at the front
of the stage to the audience’s left, Darren Bennett coming on stage with
Mark Osmond and the Senior Chorus coming on stage from the back, had a
hard time getting the audiences attention. It was several moments before the
audience had calmed down sufficiently to concentrate. I felt it would have been
fairer on Darren and Mark to have brought the chorus on first for a few minutes
that then have them enter. Still this is a fast moving pantomime. Now in The
Village Tavern, Alfredo soon turns up to get some
The trio, Alfredo, Anton, and, Simple Simon are scared in The Haunted Forrest, and start singing Teddy Bears Picnic to stop themselves being scared, some giant spiders are dangled down, prompting the classic “It’s behind you”, and a grandfatherly “Thats very naughty of you” from Brian Cant to the audience every time they don’t see the spiders. One by one they do and run off, first Simple Simon, then Anton, and lastly Alfredo. In a classic panto moment its sometimes hard for the actors to remain convincing, and Darren deserves singling out for managing to be totally convincing throughout the scene; there were moments when Brian looked little as if he was going through the motions (but then Brian is getting on a bit).
In The Castle Kitchen, Mrs Potty has grown tired of waiting and used brandy in the cake instead. Who should turn up but The Sorceress, she’s already told us she leaves nothing to chance, and now we learn why, she is planning to get possession of The Castle, and has evidently decided she needs to enchant Mrs Potty. She seems to have a certain amount of difficulty in achieving this, and gets a little frustrated, but it is noticeable that she never looses her dignity. Every time her attempts at enchanting go wrong her reaction is a calm “Ok that’s not working” and she tries something else. Her main trick is to try and hypnotise Mrs Potty, or perhaps put the dame to sleep. At any rate she is trying to get Mrs Potty to look into her eyes, and says “You’re feeling sleepy” To which Mrs Potty says “I’m not but the audience is”. This was, to my mind the least successful joke in the entire pantomime, for the simple reason that it was totally untrue. I don’t think that anyone in the audience would have dared to try and fall asleep while watching Louise Plowright strut her stuff on stage. One just couldn’t cheat her, there’s too much fire in the soul of her performance for that. With the arrival of the trio (Alfredo, Anton, and Simple Simon) The Sorceress quickly disappears, she doesn’t want them finding her, yet. The trio order Mrs Potty to take them to Beauty. But first she has to add the wine to the cake.
Upstairs in The Castle Ballroom, Beauty tells The Beast that she can’t love him, because she doesn’t know what love is, but she does like him very much, a bit disappointed, he suggests they celebrate their friendship with the cake Mrs Potty has been baking, this is brought on by the dame, followed by the trio, they’ve come to rescue Beauty, but she explains she and The Beast are just friends, and she doesn’t need rescuing. At this point The Beast tastes the cake, and says it tastes odd. Mrs Potty protests. Suddenly The Sorceress appears, and informs The Beast that she has poisoned him. Meanwhile, Simple Simon is wondering what on earth the barmaid from the tavern is doing her, so someone has to explain to him that she’s actually a sorceress. Nearly everyone seems to depart the stage at this point, except for Beauty and The Beast. The latter launches into another Andrew Lloyd-Webber type song, which Matthew Rixon sings pretty powerfully, he seems to be suited to that particular genre of musical theatre song. The Beast finally sinks down on some steps, dying. But at this point, Beauty realising how much she’ll miss The Beast kisses him. She has fallen in love. Suddenly a flywire pulls The Beast up into the roof, so all we can see are his legs. Lighting effects spill onto the stage, and when he is let down he is no longer a beast, but a prince again. The curse is broken.
Outside The Castle its time for more traditional Christmas show fare, the audience sing-a-long. Out comes Alfredo, followed by Mrs Potty on a Scooter. Alfredo wants to do When The Saints Go Marching In, while Mrs Potty favours She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain. So after running through both, they split the audience in half, Brian on the audiences left, and Chris on the audiences right, and each side does half. The dame then departs to try on a dress, leaving Brian to read out various notices and some birthday greetings.
The finale is in The Ballroom, everyone comes on in their turn to take their bow, and then sings the end of the story, with each of the principals, including The Sorceress taking some individual lines. When they all sing together, it is Cassidy and most especially Louise whose voices are particularly loud and clear.
Overall great Christmas fun. It is a provincial pantomime, I’ve only ever seen suburban professional pantos before, and this was much more fun, it was a lovely mix of topical celebrity, and cast-related references (actually I only spotted one of the latter -The Grange Hill joke - and was surprised there weren’t more), mixed with some local references. There were a wide variety of songs, to cater both to slightly different musical tastes, and the abilities of the performers. Matthew Rixon’s beast seemed to get largely Andrew Lloyd-Webber type stuff, while Darren Bennett’s Anton had numbers which seemed to illustrate his 1930’s/40’s dance-film-star style, Chris Hayward’s Mrs Potty had good old-fashioned show tunes, and Louise Plowright’s sorceress had some pop-rock-jazz type things that she alone happens to have a certain talent for singing (though I’m sure she would have done the show tunes well, its just that no one else could have done the rock/pop style well enough). With such a range of music, it helps to have it well played, and Simon Gray led the seven-piece orchestra (Andrew Franks, Pete Shelley, Mike Potts, Huw Jones, Graeme Lawrence, and, Steve Hayes) very well, as one would expect from someone who was Guildhall trained and with the variety of experience listed in his resume. I was a little unhappy with the radio mikes, in some cases (especially Beauty and Anton) they were far to noticeable visibly and audible (if radio miking is done well it should not be noticeable to the ear). In addition this is quite a small theatre, and I’m not too sure if some of these singers (such as The Beast and The Sorceress) really needed miking anyway. That said, after a while one sort of got used to the mikes, but should one have had to? The Juvenile chorus of: Amy Billing, Jessica Greenham, Chantelle Noory, Amy Owen, Jessica Owen, Ambert Porter, Charlotte Reid, Courtnay Rowan, Amelia Shawdon, Isabella Sedgwick, Olivia Taylor, Kari Thompson, Megan Travers, Cari Wakeford, and, Amy Wilson, were good as the towns children, and seemed to do well as The Trogs (I say “seemed” on this last point, because The Sorceress was quite rightly the major feature of most of those scenes). Meanwhile the Senior Chorus of: Keely Campbell, Chloe Coulter, Samantha Cummings, Natalie Evans, Kim Holder, Michelle Holland, Kate Hurley, Natalie Khoshnevis, Beth Kingston, Alexandria Reidcliffe, and Sarah Russell. Were truly excellent as the tap dancing plates (they rather made that Anything Goes number), and splendid as the Gypsies backing Darren Bennett’s numbers.
All the principals were good, though some were better than others. As the dame, Mrs Potty, Chris Hayward had the children amused, and managed to look good in a range of costumes. As The Prince/Beast Matthew Rixon has a pretty a powerful voice, and acted well. Particularly when The Beast was trying to get Beauty to look at him, and be more than friends. As Simple Simon, Mark Osmond provided an effective foil for Darren Bennett and others, while generally making a good job of playing a village idiot, without actually appearing too stupid, just a bit slow; Some of the younger children might actually have identified with the character when he didn’t understand things. In general it was great to see Brian Cant on stage, after all he is such a children’s television legend, and he still knows how to enter into the spirit of a good children’s entertainment. But he is getting on a bit; he seemed to be playing a funny combination of late-middle-aged pantomime father, combined with doddery old fool, and seemed a little uncertain which way to take the character. All the same it was good to see him still on the stage. In the all important role of Beauty Cassidy Janson played her part well, was convincing, looked a beauty, and sang to the high standard. As a singer she managed to hold her own amongst the other performers. It was a real pleasure to finally get to see Darren Bennett on stage, and to see him dance a bit. His good looks and fine tap dancing clearly make him an excellent choice for certain musical classics. Who knows perhaps one day he might be a rival or even successor to someone like Tim Flavin? It is also wonderful to see Louise Plowright on stage again, this time in a totally different role to the only other part I’ve ever seen her in. I had wondered beforehand whether I would still think her as good an actress in a different role. But I’m happy to say that anyone who saw her in Mamma Mia won’t be disappointed by her performance in this pantomime. Besides her brilliant command of the stage, the really wonderful thing about watching her performance, is that she appears to give it her all, there’s no going-through-the-motions in her performance, its full on to the high standard one would expect from a West End Leading Lady, perhaps the highlight of the show. However, all the performers do pretty well. All the same, I felt it was worth coming down from London to see this pantomime, just to see Darren Bennett and Louise Plowright’s performances alone. With these two in it, it really is a case of gee wee wow how lucky, how lucky can we get.