It originated as a 1740 French fairytale about a woman who must learn to love a hairy monster, one that was probably designed to get young girls used to the idea of arranged marriages.
Disney’s 1991 film added a welcome injection of feminism, making Belle a bold, bookish heroine who risks everything to save her elderly father. And that same get-up-and-go is on ample display in Courtney Stapleton’s vigorous turn as Belle, at the heart of this lavish musical theatre take on Disney’s movie.
She’s thoroughly fed up of her provincial town, however pretty-as-a-picturebook it might be in Stanley A Meyer’s delightfully old-fashioned set design. So her sojourn in the beast’s castle is, after some initial teething troubles, a real pleasure. She’s welcomed by the campest assortment of anthropomorphic bric a brac in all of France, led by prancing Lumiere (Gavin Lee) and pedantic Cogsworth (Nigel Richards). Then director Matt West throws the kitchen sink at ‘Be Our Guest’, which becomes a Hollywood Golden Age-style tapdancing extravaganza, full of highkicking ‘plates’ and giant champagne bottles that shower the audience with streamers.
The title number ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is similarly crowd pleasing, with Sam Bailey’s winsome cockney vocals accompanying a love scene between Stapleton’s Beauty and Beast (a magnificently voiced Shaq Taylor) that crackles with real chemistry.
But what about the story’s darkness? Well, understandably this production softens the testosterone-marinated arrogance of spurned suitor Gaston (Tom Senior): “I use antlers in all of my decorating”, he proclaims, in a joyful tavern-based knees-up of a musical number. And Beast is less terrifying monster, more grumpy pussycat in an embroidered frockcoat, making coy little bids for Belle’s attention.
But there are still some convincing chills supplied by the Darrel Maloney’s seriously spooky projection design, with child-scaring wolves that are grim enough to satisfy even the most sadistic fairytale writer. First staged in 1993, book writer Linda Woolverton’s adaptation embellishes the movie with some delightful additional details, adding new peril by making the household staff gradually turn into objects as the narrative progresses.
Penned by original composer Alan Menken and new lyricist Tim Rice, the additional songs are sometimes less successful, with the exception of the wistful, spirited waltz ‘Human Again’ and the Beast’s spinetingling solo ‘If I Can’t Love Her’. But this production zips through its story with an agility that its lumbering Disney stablemate Frozen the Musical must be jealous of, pausing only to thrill the audience with magic tricks (the beast’s transformation is a wonder).
All in all, it’s an extravagant, memorable update on a tale that’s as old as time, but as exhilarating as ever.
Beauty and the Beast is running at the London Palladium until September 17. For tickets visit ES Tickets