If New York neo-burlesque and British disability performance strike you as an odd combination, you can’t have been following the careers of Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser. What Coney Island has joined, let no man put asunder: the pair met working the sideshows there, she doing smart, sexy burlesque, he crafting new takes on ‘true-born freak’ acts using his short arms (his mother took Thalidomide while pregnant). They have gone on to make politically and sexually provocative work together, such as their cabaret assault ‘The Freak and the Showgirl’. They also got married.
Developed with Improbable’s Phelim McDermott, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is the duo’s take on the classic fairytale, intertwined with details of their own lives. Taking place on a set of wood, brass and rose vines, it’s an ingeniously multifaceted confection, combining relaxed direct address, slightly stiffer character work and fluid, elegant projection and puppetry (from Jonny Dixon and Jess Mabel Jones). Oh, and loads of full frontal nudity and simulated shagging.
It’s an X-rated affair, then, prompting gasps both times I’ve seen it. Yet it’s also moving, thought-provoking and completely charming. Atlas Muz and Fraser’s chemistry is warm and magnetic: the beating heart for the production’s canny exploration of his supposedly beastly status and its irrelevance to their growing attraction.
Some elements are less developed or compelling than they could be. While Fraser’s ‘beastliness’ is explored in depth, we hear far less from Atlas Muz about expectations of female beauty – an area she has brilliantly engaged elsewhere in her work. And unlike the mythic tale, the couple’s real-life love story is devoid of tension. But these reservations are swept aside by the production’s plentiful coups, from projected soup and disembodied hands to dancing, bathing, dining and, yes, shagging sequences that celebrate the beauty in the beast.
By Ben Walters