Beauty And The Beast at Ashcroft Theatre

Panto is back in full effect, and I was sent along to enjoy Imagine Theatre’s Presentation of Beauty and the Beast (directed by Stacey Haynes) playing at the Ashcroft Theatre until Sunday 2nd January 2022.

Pantomime is traditionally aimed at children as a pre (and post) Christmas outing of fun, laughter, and storytelling. Bright colours, audience participation, boos, cheers, and silliness should be expected, and I’m pleased to say the cast of the show delivered exactly that.

Once the auditorium had filled with the excited buzz of the young audience members and their families, we were whisked off to the village of Chateau Briande where our story begins. A sudden pop of smoke captures the audience’s attention as Fairy Fairfield (Elizabeth Ayodele) appears to welcome us all to a ‘tale as old as time’. Ayodele gives a warming performance as the show’s narrator and, as she signals the curtain to rise on the evening’s performance with a swish of her wand, the audience are well on their way to a night of “oh no you’re nots” and “they’re behind yous”.

Sticking somewhat closely to the traditional story we know and love, we learn that our female protagonist Belle (Alice Oberg) is being pursued by the shows villain Benedict Bourbon (Nic James) who believes his good looks and stature alone should be enough to win the love of the beautiful and kind maiden. James’ credits, as listed in the show programme, covers a variety of pantos and his experience is clear to see. His energy level is high, his characterisation is great, and he delivers well the fiendishness you come to expect from a pantomime villain. Oberg gives us a sweet and likeable Belle and her prowess as a singer was a definite highlight. My one criticism is, against the larger performances by the likes of James and the soon to be mentioned Dick & Dom, Oberg could’ve afforded to go bigger with her performance. At times it felt a little safe and she was easily lost during moments where the bigger personalities were on stage. This said, Belle isn’t the easiest character to ‘go big’ with but, as the leading lady, it’s important that she doesn’t fade into the background.

This was something Dick & Dom need not be concerned with. Bursting onto the stage with high energy and wit, it was obvious we were dealing with two highly experienced and well-trained performers. The children adore them and, given they were presented with the chance to yell “Bogies” each time the boys appeared on stage, it didn’t take long for them to have the audience eating out of their hands. Highlights included Mini Dick & Dom, a magic trick involving buckets that saw Dom having to deal with an unrehearsed bump to the face, and the delivery of some questionable adult material that walked the line perfectly and kept the older members of the audience entertained. These boys know what they’re doing, and you felt safe in their hands and in the knowledge that, if anything did go wrong, it would probably be because of them, and they actually had everything under control.

A further example of comfortable stage presence was seen in Derek Griffith. Griffith’s years of experience laid the foundations for a smooth and pacey performance as Professor Potage and a few moments alongside Dick & Dom gave him the opportunity to flex his comedic skills while presenting us with a kind natured and likeable portrayal as Belle’s Father.

It must be said that Prince Pierre/Beast (Danny Whitehead) is a hidden gem in this show. I’d imagine performing most of the time with the beasts’ head on is no easy feat. Yet he was able to give us a performance that was clear, layered, and enjoyable. His delivery of the Goo Goo Dolls Iris (lyrically a perfect choice for the story arc of the Beast) was my favourite vocal performance of the night. It was no big surprise to me to find that he had a string of West End credits to his name including Les Mis (which I remember thinking would be the perfect fit for him).

The picky side of me was a little disappointed with the less traditional portrayal of Belle and I found myself thinking, with her blonde updo and blue finale ballgown, Oberg had more of a resemblance to Cinderella than Belle. A fact I heard a couple of audience members pick up on during the last number. However, I would say this critique comes from more of a nostalgic point of view than anything else because overall, the show was great fun with a strong and well-chosen cast.

The set was exactly as you’d expect for such a production with a bright and cartoon like feel and costumes to match. The choreography (Graeme Pickering) worked very well in line with the story and was executed beautifully by the three ensemble members (Jon Clayton, Dan Teague & Caitlin Gudaitis). Teague for me was the most watchable dancer while Clayton got to show off his versatility as Ashcroft, the less than coordinated sidekick of Bourbon. And we got to enjoy Gudaitis vocal ability during ‘If I Were Not With Prince Pierre’. For a small ensemble cast, the trio did a fabulous job and worked well together.

Pantomime has been a staple part of the Great British Christmas for as long as I can remember, and the only thing we expect is a night of laughs, comedy, and a chance to yell at the actors on stage. As the grandmother sat next to me said; “as long as the grandkids had a great time, I’m happy”.

And I wholeheartedly agree. Anyone coming to a panto with the view of a serious piece of theatre in need of a strong review should put down their pen and paper, boo at the villain, laugh at the cheesy jokes and allow the joy of the younger audience members to be their guide.

And I’m glad I did exactly that because I had a great night! Well done to all.

Review by Kemal Ibrahim.

Beauty and The Beast is at the Ashcroft Theatre until 2nd January.

If you like this review you might also like reviews of Sleeping Beauty at The Churchill Theatre, Jack and the Beanstalk at The Orchard Theatre and Dick Whittington at New Wimbledon Theatre.

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