Beasts and Beauties
Hampstead Theatre December 2010; December 2011
Amidst all the pantos and other family shows of the season, this modest little gem may be the one that children and grownups enjoy most and remember longest.
Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has reshaped a handful of classic tales, ranging from the familiar (Beauty and the Beast, The Emperor's New Clothes) to the less so (The Juniper Tree).
Melly Still and Tim Supple adapted them for the stage, and Still directs an attractive and versatile cast in bringing them comically or touchingly alive.
Still's mode is Story Theatre, with the actors sharing narration, sometimes just a line or two each, at the same time as they portray the characters.
(The technique may be most familiar from Trevor Nunn's RSC Nicholas Nickleby, though American director Paul Sills first developed it, with some of the same fairy tales, in the 1950s.)
And so we are told and shown each tale in turn, each in an appropriate mode. Some, like the farmer who tries to do his wife's chores for a day, turn into broad farce.
Others, like The Juniper Tree or Beauty and the Beast, get a more evocatively poetic treatment; and the modern dress Emperor's New Clothes even manages a bit of topical satire.
Parents of the very young might be warned that, quite appropriately, there are occasional gory or scary touches - Bluebeard's victims, Beast's fangs, a severed head - but they should also be reminded that they, the parents, are likely to be more upset by these things than the kids, who instinctively understand scariness to be part of the fairy tale world.
Judging from the school audience I sat with, the kids are fully caught up in the narratives and imaginative staging, though inevitably it is the naughtier bits that delight them most - a pig wallowing messily in the farmer's spilled milk, Beast's lack of table manners, or the Emperor's decorous nudity.
Adults, meanwhile, can appreciate the clever staging and some of the subtler humour, like a cow with attitude or the Austin Powers-ish tricks by which the Emperor's modesty is protected.
Perhaps just a wee bit overlong (two and a half hours, including interval), the show is still that rare thing, a delight the whole family can share.
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Review of Beasts And Beauties - Hampstead Theatre 2010