Going to see a panto as an Italian, raised in a theatre culture that has truly nothing even similar to it in its repertoire, is an interesting experience. As a first-time panto attendee, and therefore someone that has never experienced it in childhood, I did not quite know what to expect, and was particularly pleased with myself in that I got all of the jokes – something that I will now argue testifies to an excellent knowledge of British pop culture, or so I like to delude myself. It might be interesting, at some point, to reflect on how British pantomime might have a relationship with its Ancient Roman namesake, with which it seems to have much in common, including a very similar type of humour and a high level of encouragement of audience participation. All this considered, Beauty and the Beast at the New Theatre was an excellent introduction to the genre, a quick-paced, over-the-top work with some genuine devotion to its production.
Production value is certainly taken in high consideration, with some impressive sets and costumes, topped by the most impressive piece of scenery, a huge puppet of the fearful Kraken, moving over the stage to loom over the audience in a surprisingly atmospheric moment that would have worked better as a narrative climax rather than just as the close of the first act; while exciting and impressive, its positioning halfway through made it feel partly wasted, and the actual final confrontation may have come across as underwhelming by comparison. That only partly mattered: the true strength of the production was less in its plot and more in its comedy. And while the humour was pervasive and the audience was kept consistently amused – Beauty and the Beast has very few slow moments – there were some scenes that undoubtedly stood out. A musical sequence with some highly allusive pans and spoons must be mentioned, but perhaps the highest moment of comedic brilliance was delivered by Edward Rowe embarking with surprising success in the difficult task of recounting in a coherent, amusing fashion a memory of a date night incorporating the names of as many sweets as possible. The task was more challenging than it might sound and was achieved beautifully. The musical numbers were equally strong, with worthy performers in Naomi Slights as Belle, Ben Richards as the Beast and Danny Bayne as the Gaston-like Clarence Bridge. The dancing duet between Belle and the Beast came across as genuinely touching, which is impressive given the general tone of the production.
More than anything, however, what made Beauty and the Beast a success is its cast. There was an impression that everyone on stage was genuinely having fun while also taking their roles surprisingly seriously, and this is what gave strength to most scenes, even the ones where the writing was weaker – perhaps the hardest job was that of Stephanie Webber, who lent a good stage presence to an otherwise underwhelming villain ad Deadly Nightshade. Mike Doyle was a brilliant dame, keeping the rhythm of the performance lively, also aided by some memorable costumes and by a good stage chemistry with Rowe. Lisa Riley as Mrs Potts managed to include at least one truly emotional moment in what was otherwise a high-energy, funny performance. A special mention must be given to rugby champion Gareth Thomas, here tackling a comedic role with impressive skill; his performance was not at all out of place among the professional actors and singers.
With its successful humour and its quick-paced plot, Beauty and the Beast was an entertaining night out and a great first experience with panto for someone that came to it with pretty much no preconceptions. It has certainly made me curious to see more in the future, and I am sure I will be awaiting next year’s panto at the New Theatre with some anticipation.
Until January 13, 2019