Theatre Review: Beauty and the Beast @ Tobacco Factory Theatres
by Polly Hember
It’s a cold December night in Bristol. As you walk into the Tobacco Factory Theatre to see Beauty and the Beast, leaves and twigs brush your head. You’re greeted with a misty, sparse set of wooden planks on the floor and garden statues. The audience is whisked away from chilly Bristol to a mystical and magical overgrown forest in rural to witness the humorous and heartfelt remaking of the classic French fairy tale.
Most of us think of Lumiere, talking teapots and piano stools whimsically singing ‘Be Our Guest’, the Disney-Belle’s yellow dress and Emma Watson with her head in a book, curtailing the arrogant Gaston when we think of Beauty and the Beast. NIE, Cambridge Junction and Tobacco Factory Theatres have stripped back the story to the original French tale and incorporated innovative characters and impressive live music to form a wholly unique and festive fairy-tale.
We join a formally wealthy Parisian family who have recently become bankrupt, now moving into a tiny cottage called ‘La Gite Terrible’ on the edges of Valence. A well-meaning and widowed father, two spoilt and selfish step-sisters and the brilliant Isabella. Isabella (aka. The embodied Christmas Spirit) is the sparkling light that relishes in a small cottage that will bring their family closer together, unmaterialistic and beaming at this humble beginning whilst her bratty counterparts yearn for Vera Wang dresses and diamond necklaces, asking where the servants will sleep and lamenting the lack of tennis courts to practice out back.
When Maurice (Ben Tolley) stumbles into an abandoned but welcoming mansion and plucks a rose for Isabella, he is confronted by the terrifying Beast (Martin Bonger) who demands the company of one of his daughters in return for his crime. Selfless Isabella takes his place and, outraged, she is forced to dine with the Beast once a week.
These dinners are the high points of the entire show; Bonger is a fantastic beast – disgusting, hilarious and bizarrely heartfelt, he painstakingly arranges some awful dinners. Desperate to impress, he throws crockery and cutlery all over the table, decides to make chocolate mousse (“eggs, sugar, butter and cream, but it in the fridge and it comes out a dream!”, the chorus sing), tramples all over the table, nearly throws the mousse over a decidedly unimpressed Isabella, gobbles it up, smearing it all over his white shirt and beard, shouts, pours wine all over her and then is wholly confused as to what went wrong.
The audience was in hysterics throughout this chocolatey exchange. Seeking advice from the audience, Bonger pleaded romantic advice from couples dotted around the Tobacco Factory Theatre.
He impressed Isabella by exchanging jokes, writing a song and both of them dancing on the table. This was a fantastic gesture to panto tradition, involving the laughing audience in the side-splitting courtship. Brilliantly witty, silly and sympathetic, Bonger was a fantastically sharp and hugely entertaining Beast.
Special mention to the two sisters, phenomenally played by Elliot Davis (Anastasia) and Samantha Sutherland (Latrice). They were bullying, bulshy and beautifully droll – every sardonic drawl was followed by a whiney “Daddy” and a pointed eye roll. They balanced hilarity, comic timing and playacting traditional pantomime baddies perfectly.
With original live music, accordions, double basses, flutes, saxophones and clarinets toted about on stage, the multitalented ensemble danced, acted, sung and impressed at every point. The folky music traditions provided a brilliant and nuanced backdrop to this reimagined fairy tale.
Director Alex Byrne states that love can “redeem, transform and surprise us”. This is the warming Christmas message tucked away at the heart of this funny and fierce fairy tale that reminds us that beauty is only skin deep, and rancorous step sisters can be much more malevolent than a beastly looking Bonger. However, this production keeps things light and ludic – with the audience laughing almost too loudly at the stepsisters for us to hear Isabella’s cathartic speech about love, beauty and family. We still heard it, it went straight to our hearts at this festive and sometimes hard time of year, even though we were preoccupied with the fantastic funny faces of Davis and Sutherland at the time. A warming and whimsical tale for Christmas time, brilliantly executed by a talented ensemble, the whole family will enjoy this.
Beauty and the Beast is at the Tobacco Factory Theatre until January 14 2018.
Check out our gallery to see more production photographs, and the hilarious Davis and Sutherland in action!
All photos by Mark Dawson.