THE NORTHCOTT THEATRE – TILL 5 JANUARY 2020
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
RUNNING TIME – 2 HOURS 30 MINUTES– 1 INTERVAL
Northcott Box Office – 01392 726363
REVIEW – CORMAC RICHARDS – 4 DECEMBER 2019
Live theatre is often unpredictable and throws up challenges night by night which you cannot always legislate for. Small companies rarely have a team of understudies in place and somehow cope if the worst happens. So, it was on the Press Night for the much heralded Northcott Theatre Pantomime this year when the actor playing the important role of Cupid was struck down with illness. Time for the director to don the pink suit and, with the aid of his own wings, fly in to the rescue.
After last year’s underwhelming offering, the Northcott would have been looking to up their panto game in the face of considerable competition locally and regionally. The Pantomime business has probably never been bigger and there is little room for the mediocre or the shoddy.
A very decorative and pleasing frontispiece certainly offers the thought that this will be step up in production values and it is not disappointing visually – the sets by James Button (originally designed for Wiltshire Creative) are very good – with the exception of one cloth featuring some poorly realised buildings – and they help create a magical feel to the proceedings. Costumes too must add colour and sparkle to the story and these are also well put together.
The production values are further enhanced by the lighting design of David W Kidd, which is varied, colourful and effective. I may not have been the only person thinking the spookier scenes were crying out for dry ice or similar to create even more atmosphere – maybe the budget wouldn’t stretch. The small band were kept under control by Carlton Edwards and never overwhelmed the performers, assisted by sensitive work from the sound team. Song choices were varied and nicely original – many with a French flavour to suit the setting – the singing overall was pretty good.
Pantomimes can live and die by their script. Even the best performers will struggle to make something of wretched lines. In this instance we have a new script by Daniel Buckroyd. It has a freshness of approach with Cupid and Nightshade competing with each other over the potential love match of Belle and Prince Valentin. As someone who reads many dozens of pantomime scripts, it is very pleasant to come across one which offers something a bit different – my heart did sink though when the ‘ghost behind you’ routine reared its head again – yes it was in last year’s show and although I know it gets the children screaming out, it is tired and overdone and I saw it in far too many shows last year.
The main problem with the script is that it lacks laughs; it isn’t without humour, but belly laughs are at a premium; this is more mild titter territory. The other issue that affects the whole is that the show takes a long time to get going; with Cupid introducing the action – at length – and throwing in two songs at the top of the show, the audience is still anticipating the action to start, which it eventually does. With a running time of 75 minutes for the first half, we are 15 minutes too long and some judicious use of the red pen would move proceedings along better and condense the good bits into a better whole. With only a small cast and some young local dancers (with two professionals), the show can never produce that ‘wow factor’ of a full stage of singers and dancers which the bigger companies are able to do, and so if the show is tightened up it can help overcome this.
Daniel Buckroyd, the aforementioned writer, is also the Artistic Director of the Northcott, Director of the show and, as has been mentioned, had to step into the role of Cupid. He acquits himself handsomely. This is a major – probably THE major – role in the show and so the absence of Dafydd Lansley would have been a blow. With script in hand – though it was rarely needed – Buckroyd does a grand job and copes admirably with the many songs and business at hand. I am sure he will hope for the return of the original Cupid back to full health and on to the stage.
As Cupid’s nemesis Nightshade, Anna Stolli, enjoys herself strutting about the stage, cackling and bellowing insults at one and all whilst sporting an enormous headdress. Samson Ajewole has a fine stature as Prince Valentin – a shame that we couldn’t have seen a more inventive ‘transformation’ scene. Sarah Moss is fine as Belle, but, like most on stage, is overshadowed by the performance of Francesca Pim as her sister Soufflé. This is a pocket rocket of a performer with a belting voice and a wonderful range of facial expressions – the whole show lifts palpably when she is involved. Steve Bennett has great comic timing as Monsieur Marzipan – a seasoned performer and it shows. There is a school of thought that says a panto dame should never be played as a drag queen – I have not come across Martin Ramsdin’s alter ego, Bunny Galore, but he successful treads a fine line and delivers some wonderfully caustic asides whilst displaying a marvellous array of outfits – the bumblebee one being my particular favourite.
The young chorus of dancers do a decent enough job – the rather uninspiring choreography of the first half was much improved upon after the interval, but overall I was aching for something bigger and bolder.
Creating a pantomime is a ticking box exercise – there are so many elements that need to be included – visual gags, audience participation, slapstick (a little too ‘safe’ in this show) etc – and, in the main, this show has a fairly full house. The large audience seemed delighted with what they saw which is another box ticked. A bit more zing and zip, along with some script pruning, would really help elevate this show as the rather tentative approach holds it back – maybe with the lead restored, it will gain that extra star I would have liked to have awarded it. That said, this is a considerable step up from last year – may the upward trajectory continue.
PRINCE VALENTIN/BEAST – SAMSON AJEWOLE
MONSIEUR MARZIPAN – STEVE BENNETT
CUPID – DANIEL BUCKROYD (UNDERSTUDYING FOR DAFYDD LANSLEY)
BELLE – SARAH MOSS
SOUFFLÉ – FRANCESCA PIM
DAME BETTY BONBON – MARTIN RAMSDIN
NIGHTSHADE – ANNA STOLLI
EMSEMBLE – HOLLIE NELSON, SEBASTIAN RAMUSSEN
YOUNG CHORUS (TEAM ROSE) – EMILY BAKER, JESS BARTLETT, ELLA CAMPBELL, CERYS GITTOS, PIPER LEISK, MADDIE PERKINS
WRITER/DIRECTOR – DANIEL BUCKROYD
MUSICAL DIRECTOR – CARLTON EDWARDS
CHOREOGRAPHER – SUZIE BOYLE
DESIGNER – JAMES BUTTON
LIGHTING DESIGN – DAVID W KIDD
SOUND DESIGN – BEN HARRISON