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Review of Beauty and The Beast at The Polka Theatre Wimbledon

Beauty and the Beast Production Image - Photo credit Robert Workman
Beauty and the Beast Polka Theatre Production Image – Photo credit Robert Workman

Whilst not a household name, Charles Way is one of our most prolific living playwrights. Comfortable with work for all ages he is particularly adept at writing for children and young people having garnered a number of awards and seeing productions of his work performed all the way from Reykjavik to Bethesda. In Beauty and the Beast we can discern his lightness of touch and fundamental feel for what children know and understand in one of his re-tellings of classic fairy tales (in this case originally by French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont) – a modem re-imagining of the story that never strays too far from its original and which encapsulates Way’s USP: the ability to capture the magic of the original whilst engaging kids from the iPad age.

This is a scintillating production, directed by Roman Stefanski for Polka. There is magic here in abundance whether it be disappearing tables, disembodied hands setting the feast, moving branches or haunting images created by shadow puppets.

He is aided in his concept by a mystical design by Laura McEwan and subtle and evocative lighting (Ian Scott) used especially effectively on the translucent panes that permeate the branches of the garden of the Beast’s castle.

Beauty and the Beast Production Image - Photo credit Robert Workman
Beauty and the Beast Polka Theatre Production Image – Photo credit Robert Workman

Given such enticing staging it is up to the cast to respond and play it form the heart – the performers have to buy into the concept of fantastical-reality. Belle’s sister, Cassandra, prances into the script via actor Géhane Strehler, an admirable OTT foil to her shrinking violet sibling. She struts and pouts and scolds and mollycoddles in a demonstration of sisterly dominance that is effectively entertaining. Simon Holmes as the sisters’ father alternates adeptly from suitably smug patriarch to world-weary victim and Andrew Chevalier as Cassandra’s love-interest, Daniel Knightly and alter ego simpleton Jan Stewer (yes, you read that right: the action is transferred from London to all-along-down-along Devon), has a very neat box of comedy tricks that he spreads liberally throughout the show. His side-eye glance from behind his disguise spectacles is positively Corbynesque.

The sinister Housekeeper (Emma Cater) is a kind of wicked cross between Mrs Danvers and Nurse Ratched and I for one wouldn’t want to meet her on a dark night particularly in the middle of Dartmoor: chilling. And that’s another of Way’s attributes, of course: it maybe a kids play but it can still be scary.

As for the Beast, Jason Eddy bridles and roars and threatens and tries to scare the wits out of Belle but it is all tempered by a touching sensitivity that wins our hearts as well as Belle’s: a measured and subtle performance that is all animal, though, maybe, mainly family-hearth-dog animal. But of course you need a Belle that can play off that and use it to the best advantage and Ritu Arya does exactly that.

Amongst all these colourful fairytale characters Belle is down-to-earth, realistic, affectionate and loyal. It’s an immensely cleverly written role and Arya does it full justice. Starting as a frightened girl, with bad dreams and a phobia of spiders, her journey takes her to a place where she can confront her own fears and deal with her own nightmares – real or imagined. We feel for her, we feel with her; we see our own fears in her fears and we want to be as strong as she is in her ultimate response. This is a recurring theme in Way’s work: self-knowledge and self-renewal.

The play was written to encompass a strong movement element and this excellent cast respond well to that under the expert direction of choreographer Emma Cater, throwing off her malevolent Housekeeper apron strings to conduct a balletic ensemble of waves, trees, floating props and dream sequences with an excellent (comic) fight between the two sisters. This is all helped by an intriguingly dramatic musical score by Julian Butler.

And amongst the dark overtones and threatening thorns there is always humour: a kids show with plenty for the adult to ponder and be amused by. “Why do people always talk in riddles?” asks Belle. “Because they’re adults” comes the reply. Way has had a long association with Polka, his show Playing from the Heart – a bio-piece about Evelyn Glennie – being one of many highlights. Beauty and the Beast as a Christmas show for children (and families) is perhaps the perfect antidote to the ubiquitous fading-Soap-Star-led Panto and gives perfect sanctuary from the Disney-ization of wonderful folk tales. When you sit in an audience 90 per cent of whom are entranced children it is obvious that Way, and Polka, know instinctively what they are doing and have another sure-fire hit on their hands.

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

Beauty and the Beast
A red rose sparks a fantastical adventure for Belle and her prince, cursed with a beastly spell… Meet two sisters who couldn’t be more different. Cassandra is as feisty as Belle is timid, but when their father’s life is threatened by a fearsome Beast, it is Belle who comes to the rescue. Follow her courageous journey to the Beast’s mysterious castle where she must overcome her fears and discover the true meaning of beauty. But can a single kiss set her prince free? The enchanting children’s classic comes to life this winter in an exhilarating Polka show brimming with adventure, music, magic and mystery.

Beauty and the Beast
A Polka Theaatre production
By Charles Way
Director Roman Stefanski
Music by Julian Butler
Designer Laura McEwen
Lighting Designer Ian Scott

Running time approx. 100 minutes (including interval)
After-Show Talk Sun 6th December, 2.30pm
Audio Described Performance Sunday 13 December, 11am
Relaxed Performance Sun 13 December, 2.30pm
20th November 2015 to 7th February 2016
BSL Performance Sat 9 January, 11am
This show is suitable for children aged 6 – 12
AGE POLICY: Children younger than 6 will only be admitted to performances marked All Ages Welcome.

Beauty and the Beast
Polka Theatre
240 The Broadway
Wimbledon
London SW19 1SB
http://www.polkatheatre.com/

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