Beauty and the Beast

Kids, Performance
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

On a good year, the Theatre Royal Stratford East panto is effortlessly the best in town, outclassing even Hackney Empire’s big budget extravaganza in terms of eccentric imagination, off-the-wall humour and delectable song-craft.

And when I say ‘a good year’, I mean ‘a year in which Olivier-nominated duo Trish Cooke and Robert Hyman have written the show’. As with 2012’s ho-hum ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, Cooke and Hyman are absent for ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and while Paul Sirett, Wayne Nunes and Perry Melius’s show is agreeable, it lacks the madcap attention to detail, barking mad characters and glorious electro-pop ditties of vintage TRSE.

What it does retain is the wondrous Michael Bertenshaw, who has been allowed hysterically off the leash in the dame role of Giselle, aunty to Helen Aluko’s titular beauty Belle. The level of innuendo he gets away is quite staggering, as is some of the wordplay, wherein to all intents and purposes he swears at the entire room, before offering up a wide-eyed explanation for why what he just said was perfectly innocent. He is a true lord of misrule, staggering blearily through an otherwise squeaky clean story, causing all sorts of chaos on the way. Parents: you’ll probably laugh a lot; I imagine it’ll all go over your kids’ heads… just about.

Things do tend to feel rather anaemic when Bertenshaw is off stage, alas, and fun as it is to see him daming, the Cooke/Hyman years have shown him to be the best panto villain in the game, much better than the dull antagonists here, who barely slow down Belle’s predictable romance with Vlach Ashton’s hulking Beast.

Still, there’s a danger of damning a fundamentally decent show by comparison. It’s an enjoyable couple of hours with plenty for the kids and almost as much for adults. And there’s a delightfully subversive twist to the end that shows the spirit of Joan Littlewood is still alive and well within these walls.

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