Katie Mitchell is not one to shy away from her adaptions and versions of classic texts and stories. Last year she brought alive the much-loved Dr Sesuss story The Cat in the Hat (read our review) her first flurry into children’s theatre, and this year Mitchell returns with another well known story, Beauty and the Beast again at the National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre for younger audiences. Her adaptions and contemporary visual representations for theatre have gained quite a reputation upon her work, but has Mitchell lost her way this time?

Children’s theatre is all about the magic, the ability to make those smaller ones in the audience gasp and be truly caught up in the theatrics that theatre can offer over other mediums such as film. Yet you’d be mistaken to see this with the child in mind – it’s as if during the process Mitchell forgot the target age range and instead let loose in her own dark adult mind. Beauty and the Beast might challenge your traditional children’s work, but it ignores one of the fundamental basics – play. Of course the tale of a man who is turned into a beast until a woman can truly love him for himself is dark material – but that doesn’t mean a sense of excitement and play has to be washed out of it.

There is however much to be praised, if not celebrated in Beauty and the Beast, mostly a sense of the overall conceptual designs and theatrical inventiveness. Vicki Mortimer’s design is as you’d expect from a National Theatre production, luxuriously rich but simple. The action is divided between the Palace that the Beast lives in, and Beauty’s own family house – both greatly contrasted against each other in Mortimer’s use of spacial design, the latter being a third of the stage space compared with the Palace. A traditional red velvet curtain covers the length of the stage during interludes and scene changes, giving the action behind it a more focused definition.

A number of the scenes take place with shadow puppetry manipulated by the cast on a projector. Adding to the already stylistic production, Matthew Robins puppets add a surreal and sinister approach to the telling of the story. The montages are beautifully designed and framed perfectly against the safety curtain. It’s good to see the cast manipulating these live, instead of the sometimes preferred filmed sections.

In terms of the performers, little can be said – not for being bad, but rather their performances seem to strike me more as another tool Mitchell has used in directing Beauty in the Beast. For example, we see little in the way of Mark Arends as The Beast, as he is garbed in full ‘beast’ outfit, walks on stilts and has his voice manipulated. Arends is beastly, but in a perfectly good way for performing as a beast! Then Mitchell takes a completely non-grotesque approach to Beauty (Sian Clifford) and Beauty’s Father (Sean Jackson) who perform with such a degree of naturalism that they seem absurd, or terrible at acting. Of course, this is precisely Mitchell’s intentions, to give The Beast an other-worldly appearance, but it does make me question how far this device has been pushed and if a total level of naturalism was needed. Peppered throughout are the interruptions (for me at least) of the narrators of the show, Mr Pink (Justin Salinger) and Cecile (Kate Duchene) who offer a ring-master/magician and sidekick experiment throughout the show, another device to separate the world of The Beast from the audience.

Whilst Beauty and the Beast is creatively a wonder, and has somewhat of a schizophrenic imaginative quality to it, the through-line for the story gets lost under these conventions. I found myself often pining after the story, instead of the sidelined narratives, and ultimately a real sense of the torment that The Beast must have being stuck as a monster when all he needs is love is clearly not evident. Mitchell hasn’t reproduced a Disney quality like-for-like thankfully, but she does lack the magic that makes the story so appealing in the first place. Where was the love, play and magic? Hidden beneath mechanisms and mind-reading devices, but sadly missed for the younger audiences.

Beauty and the Beast clearly isn’t for me, but there are notable people involved in this production whose work exceeds excellence. Gareth Fry’s sound designs are as to be expected with his work, exceptional. His inventiveness and ability to create the wild and whackest of sounds makes him a great collaborator with Mitchell. Paul Clark’s music throughout the show adds a wonderfully atmospheric tone to the piece. As previously mentioned Robins and Mortimer’s collaboration with Mitchell are of an excellent level, containing detail and imagination throughout. As for Mitchell herself, it wouldn’t be fair to say she got it completely wrong here, maybe just a little too ‘conceptual happy’ that suits the nature of the Cottesloe well. It’s not a Cat in the Hat spectacle but it does have a Mitchell stamp firmly across it.

Beauty and the Beast is running until 4th January 2011 at the National Theatre. For more information and to book tickets, see their website here.