There is something quite wonderful about stripping a Disneyfied fairytale back to its roots, something joyous about dispensing with all the corporate kitsch and gift-shop paraphernalia, and returning to the unadulterated charm of the story itself.
New International Encounter’s Christmas show does just that. This is Beauty and the Beast, but not as you know it. Basing its tale on Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1756 French version, NIE has crafted something pure and inspiring: 95 minutes of inventive, music-filled, meaningful storytelling.
Alex Byrne’s production, staged transversely, offers up just enough detail to ignite the audience’s imagination. With just a few wooden boards, a couple of statue plinths, some candles and a scattering of autumnal leaves, designer Stefanie Mueller conjures up stormy seas, cosy cottages, windswept woodlands and eerie, echoing castles. It’s an engrossing, enrapturing world.
And it’s the perfect stage for Byrne’s five-strong cast to spin a tale of evil sisters, penniless fathers, one honest daughter and one exceedingly hairy man. As the performers (Martin Bonger, Carly Davis, TJ Holmes, Sara Lessore and Amalia Vitale) skilfully interleave narration, Gallic-infused song and witty audience interaction, they strike a delicate tonal balance between the traditional and the everyday, the fearsome and the fun. It’s a healthy, happy mix, which keeps kids engaged and adults entertained.
At the end of it all, you get Huey Lewis’ all-important life lesson about the strange, redemptive, unconquerable power of love. (Although, hang on, isn’t the Beast actually a bit of a manipulative bastard?)