Beauty and the Beast Is A Quality Family Show For Winter

We review this retelling of a popular fairy tale at Wimbledon's Polka Theatre

The Polka Theatre’s latest winter is a splendid retelling of the popular fairy tale Beauty and the Beast.

The play has everything you’d expect from the theatre’s Christmas output – stunning sets, spirited, engaging performances and clever use of simple effects with real impact. 

But what I enjoyed about the show is its ability to create real tension from a story so very familiar. There’s a gothic feel to the piece; an underlying sense of unease played out in a psychodrama of nightmares and primal fears.

Red-eyed wolves flit across the backdrop, there’s talk of angry men marching and a sinister housekeeper with a nod to Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers, shuffles unheard in soft shoes.

The action begins in Regency London where Belle and her sister Cassandra await the return of their merchant father’s ships, bringing wealth and, for Cassandra, marriage to the dashing Mr Knightly. But the ships are wrecked, the wedding is called off and the family moves to a life of obscurity in Devon.

 Much of the attraction of the show comes from the ambiguous world it presents, where nothing is quite what it seems.  Belle played by Ritu Arya brings a gentle, appealing warmth to the central character, while conveying her deep-seated anxiety. 

In the traditional tale Beauty’s sisters are two-dimensional and money-grabbing.  Here Cassandra’s character (played by Gehane Strehler) is more developed  – yes, she’s a bit shallow and materialistic, but she’s caring, funny and wise-cracking too.

A pivotal moment of the action comes when the beast roars onto the set in a dashing frock coat and fabulous feathered mask. For my group of nine-year-olds this was THE scene, acted out several time on the way home.  Jason Eddy’s beast-man is mannered and elegant and, for the younger audience, strikes a good middle-ground, bringing drama without being entirely terrifying.

Visually the play is lovely to look at. Laura McEwen’s set features a beast’s castle created from a simple pattern of branches and thorns, backlit in sumptuous shades of red, violet and amber.  The use of shadow puppets, masks, living statues and the odd disembodied arm handing out plates of food (a bit like the Adams Family’s Thing), all add to its spooky appeal.

So if you’re after a quality family show this winter, that’s fast-paced and fun but interesting enough for the adults, Beauty and the Beast is definitely a good choice.

By Elizabeth Thompson

November 30, 2015