It’s panto season, so get ready for singing along, holding hands with the stranger next to you and lots of “boooo!”-ing from the audience – all of which your reviewer duly participated in. At Stratford East, the classic panto is always done a bit differently, with emphasis on racial diversity and a wider selection of music styles (dubstep, R&B, hip-hop included). This year is Beauty and the Beast, with the classic motif enveloped in a second frame, incorporating a number of other fairy tales as well.
Written by Paul Sirett, the story revolves around Belle (Helen Aluko) and her family arriving in Stratenford, Hinterland (get it) only to be put to work in an awfully Victorian sweet-producing factory. When her father (Minal Patel) goes missing, Belle tumbles into an enchanted palace where the Beast (Vlach Ashton) lives amongst his fairytale staff. He has to love before his twenty-first birthday, otherwise he’ll not turn into the handsome prince he used to be. If all of this is not enough, there are also wicked witches living in an enchanted library, whose mission it is to give all stories bad endings – no less the one we’re seeing. Belle also acts as the guardian of stories, and of words, since her storybook is erased by evil forces. It’s all a bit much and not everything is brought to a proper standstill by the end, but hey, it’s Christmas.
For all the apparent complexity, the bulk of it is good, old-fashioned fun for both the children and the adults. The laughs are plenty and often not that family-friendly at all. It is especially veteran panto dame Michael Bertenshaw as Auntie Giselle who cracks open a jar of adult humour; his offhand delivery is sublime. Other performances by Ralph Bogard as endlessly vain factory owner Mr Choakum, and Antonia Kemi Coker as mother Witchy (the audience: “Booo!”; she: “Booo to you too!”) are very strong additions to the main cast and form welcome distractions from the storyline.
Wayne Nunes and Perry Melius do a formidable job introducing very contemporary sounds into a story as old as, well, panto itself. The singing might not be up to scratch here and there, but it is a minor blot on an otherwise boisterously fun slate. Dawn Reid directs all the hysterics on stage with fervour and the show really doesn’t lose any of its energy at any point in the two hours. Designs by Harriet Barsby and Jenny Tiramani unlock a magical world of pop-up books and dirty factory floors.
Stratford East’s annual panto feast is as delicious as ever, and according to good tradition, the festive atmosphere is not confined to the stage alone but runs through the whole building. If you’re seeing any, it might as well be this one.
Beauty and the Beast is playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 17 January. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Royal Stratford East website. Photo by Robert Day.