Review by Flossie Waite
A Polka Theatre production
20th November 2015 – 7th February 2016
For ages 6-12
There can be a temptation – for both audiences and theatres – to play it safe at Christmas. It’s why The Snowman at the Peacock Theatre is now running for its 18th year, despite there being far better, more imaginative, and often cheaper adaptations of Raymond Briggs’ work out there (check out The Bear at The Albany and Father Christmas at Lyric Hammersmith). If this is the big theatre outing of the year, it’s understandable for families to choose stories they recognise, at big (often West End) theatres. And for places like Polka, who might depend on the revenue of festive theatre-going to help them through the rest of the year, of course they want to present a production that will drum up the most interest. Step forward this year’s offering, Beauty & the Beast.
Charles Way’s script is closer to 17th and 18th Century versions of the story, rather than more recent renderings like the 1991 Disney film. In this version, a wealthy family fall to near poverty after the merchant father (Simon Holmes) loses all his ships at sea. Hearing that one has been rescued, the father heads off to the city to meet it, stopping at a garden to take a red rose for his daughter Belle (Ritu Arya) on the way. The garden’s owner, the Beast (Jason Eddy), is so angered by the theft of his flower that he creates a cruel deal: either the merchant sends one of his daughters to live with him, or he will be killed. Belle willingly volunteers, and the rest, via a probable case of Stockholm Syndrome, is history.
Many classic stories are now ‘modernized’ by giving women a larger role, and we’re used to seeing the female lead as a kick-ass, go-getting action hero with a can-do attitude. Beauty & the Beast offers a nice twist on that, as Belle is timid, bookish and terrified of spiders, gradually learning to be brave. With more than a little taste of the Frozen fever that has held children in thrall since the film’s release, the play revolves around the two sisters, Belle and Cassandra (Géhane Strehler), who bicker with each other often but love each other always. Still, both women are at the beck and call of the men in their life, whether it’s their feckless father, a lost love, or the beast. Predictably, the play ends with a double wedding as its conclusion; giving women more lines and stage-time doesn’t equal a feminist interpretation.
Beauty & the Beast is a fairly straight run through a well-known narrative: audiences will enjoy it, whilst knowing exactly what to expect. However, the best adaptations of fairytales find fresh meaning from a story the audience think they know. Even the most traditional of tales can reflect and help us to understand society and the modern world, and the style of theatre can be bold and unusual. Polka Theatre presents and helps to create experimental, thought-provoking, inventive work throughout the year, so it’s a shame that Christmas should be any different. We need something new from this tale as old as time.
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