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Beauty and the Beast (Susan Elkin reviews)

I have said publicly before that Chichester Festival Theatre’s youth theatre, headed by the immensely talented Dale Rooks, is one of the finest in the country. This splendid show proves my point – in spades.

And before we go any further let me commend CFT as warmly as I possibly can for its investment in its youth theatre which regularly takes over (and pretty well fills) the main house for two weeks over Christmas. This enlightened policy provides the city and its environs with an outstanding Christmas show supported by full production values including Simon Higlett’s mysterious, gothic set whose dark arches – lots of wow factor – swing round on the revolve to reveal a plethora of nooks, crannies and opportunities.

Anna Ledwich’s reworking of this thorny (literally) folk tale gives us an imaginative framing devices in which 1940s evacuees are housed – effectively incarcerated – in a large mansion. There, in an attic, they entertain each other by telling and sharing a story. At the end there’s a surprise packed in to the apparently Miss Trunchbull-like owner and her husband.

I’ve seen Hal Darling – the titular beast on press night – in action before and he’s definitely a young actor to watch. Hidden inside an astonishing horned exoskeleton he looks like the minotaur crossed with ET and seasoned with a strong hint of a War Horse-style Handspring puppet. His voice booms on echo from within the costume until he gradually softens as he gets to know Beauty (Mia Cunningham-Stockdale on press night). Darling’s deep voiced beast is powerful, personable and vulnerable. The end is deeply moving.

Cunningham-Stockdale is delightful as Beauty – no insipid, fairy tale pawn in Ledwich’s version. This Beauty is a feisty gardener in dungarees but prettily feminine in spite of herself. She exudes feminist strength though and refuses to wear a flouncy dress to dine with the Beast. Instead she looks stunning in a golden trouser suit (costumes by Dawson Laight). She has a sweet but assertive singing voice and a smile which sets the stage alight.

George Bailey, as Mr Villeneuve on press night, finds very convincing paternal age and wisdom or lack of it. There’s entertaining work from Crispin Glancy as the outrageously, friskily camp Kiki. But it’s actually invidious to name check too many individuals in this super show because, so well directed are these young people that there isn’t a weak performance to be seen anywhere on stage.

The ensemble numbers are glitteringly professional. Dale Rooks is very good indeed at mobilising large numbers and making interesting use of the space. She also finds ways of individualising characters so that everyone has something specific to do.

Richard Taylor’s music – there’s a fair amount of operatic sing through – is vibrant and aurally arresting especially when he gives the chorus counterpointed melodies. And with MD Colin Miller leading a six piece band, it’s in very capable hands.

Three (or four or five) cheers then for Chichester Festival Youth Theatre and everyone involved with it. They really have surpassed themselves this time.

This review was first published by Sardines: http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-Chichester%20Festival%20Theatre%20(professional)-Beauty%20and%20the%20Beast&reviewsID=3069

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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