Beauty and the Beast, London Palladium
For millennial bookworms like me, Disney’s reading-mad Belle will always have a special place in our hearts. Happily, she remains a cheer-worthy role model in the Broadway musical adaptation of the hit film, and this touring iteration, revamped by the original 1994 creative team, is canny programming, supplying largely enchanting family entertainment for the summer holidays.
The show sticks closely to that “tale as old as time”: the 18th-century fairy tale as told so persuasively by composer Alan Menken, lyricist Howard Ashman and book writer Linda Woolverton. The first half is too protracted, though: we become as eager to escape Belle’s small provincial town as she is.
But once we are ensconced in the castle, Matt West’s production becomes a marvellous mix of ghostly thrills and pantomime laughs.
Courtney Stapleton impresses as Belle swings between terror, fury and fascination. Shaq Taylor is genuinely imposing as the Beast, thanks to an array of theatrical tricks, such as hurling his booming voice between different speakers in the auditorium.
That, of course, makes it all the more satisfying when this stubborn pair look beyond their initial prejudices and begin to bond. Taylor traces a rich journey from bullying tyrant to amusingly awkward student and through to pure selflessness.
Meanwhile, the household staff supply joyful, big-hearted comedy. Gavin Lee’s Lumière is dressed in a spangly gold jumpsuit with flares, hip-thrusting and lighting his candles with flamboyant gesticulations. He has the most knowingly absurd French accent since Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s irresistible.
Lee plays brilliantly off Nigel Richards’ stuffy, obsequious Cogsworth, while X Factor’s Sam Bailey brings kindly warmth to Mrs Potts and to the title number. I wasn’t sure about Chip the cup, though: he’s become a decapitated child’s head on a tea trolley.
The show’s additional songs (with lyrics by Tim Rice) allow the lead duo to powerfully belt out their feelings. But they pale in comparison to those witty original earworms and West’s extravagant production numbers. “Gaston”, led by Tom Senior as a toxic, coercive Love Island-esque hunk, features acrobatics and choreographed tankard-clinking, while “Be Our Guest” is a full-blown Vegas feast of dancing dishware.
Stanley A Meyer’s designs look flimsy on the vast Palladium stage, but the gilt Baroque swirls are stylish and the transformations magical.
Even better, there is good messaging here about how true love inspires personal growth: transformations within, too.
To 17 September (beautyandthebeastmusical.co.uk)
Favour, Bush Theatre, London
Generational pain and the knotty bond between mothers and daughters connect the characters in this raw, affecting drama like a bloody umbilical cord.
A co-production with Clean Break, the company working with women who have criminal justice experience, Ambreen Razia’s play is in many ways conventional: there’s a prodigal’s homecoming, a spilling of family secrets, and a moral and emotional reckoning.
What elevates it is the wit, humanity and unflinching honesty of the writing, and a staging co-directed by Róisín McBrinn and Sophie Dillon Moniram that is tender and bruising.
Teenager Leila (Ashna Rabheru, heartbreakingly hopeful) lives in Ilford with her strict, protective grandmother Noor (Renu Brindle). They’re part of a close-knit Muslim community – and when Leila’s mum Aleena (febrile Avita Jay) returns after serving a prison sentence, curtains twitch and tongues wag.
Aleena, a recovering alcoholic, fizzes with an erratic, electric energy as thrilling as it is unnerving: she has big plans, and she wants her baby back. But Leila’s growing up, and her trust in everything she’s been taught, and the two people she loves most, is about to be agonisingly shattered.
An unnecessary rush of complicated, melodramatic revelations involving relatives who are discussed but never actually appear makes the play’s middle section muddled and frustrating. Elsewhere, though, Razia allows the texture of Leila’s day-to-day upbringing to seep in, little by little, and the cumulative effect is piercingly moving.
We glean, from a snatch of conversation, the desperate, hungry sucking on a soothing cigarette or a brief moment of breathless panic, a sense of how much unspoken suffering there has been for all three women, manifested in Leila’s acute anxiety, Aleena’s manic episodes and starbursts of joy and rage, and Noor’s bitten-back guilt and shame.
Liz Whitbread’s set, with its framed family photos, threadbare sofa and cramped kitchen cleverly sunken into the floor, is claustrophobically homely, a place that, for Aleena, feels as much like a prison as the cell she’s left behind. And the acting is beautiful.
Jay gives Aleena a dangerous allure, as she dangles the forbidden temptations of sugary treats, late nights, make up and boys.
Brindle’s Noor hides a welter of conflict behind pinched, impassive features and, as Leila, Rabheru is almost unbearably poignant.
There’s lively work, too, from Rina Fatania as a more affluent neighbour whose concern and cash handouts come with condescension and Schadenfreude – although Razia makes her rather too much the comic caricature. Overall, this is absorbing and psychologically astute: an unsentimental study of mother love, and the damage done in its name.
To 6 August (bushtheatre.co.uk)
Alcina, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, East Sussex
In Francesco Micheli’s new production of Handel’s Alcina, the lights go up on a little family whose dysfunctional demeanour suggests misery. Then the stage fills with grey-suited speculators and their business plans. Then – bam! – we face bold neon adverts for a downtown variety show called Isola d’Alcina – Alcina’s Island – with a fish-tailed mermaid inviting us in.
Mystifying? That’s just the overture. Cut, then, to a story whose complexity makes the brain reel. Alcina is a sexually voracious enchanter who turns her discarded suitors into trees and wild beasts on her island. Ruggiero, blinded by his obsession, is the latest of these, and his jilted partner, Bradamante, has arrived (cross-dressed and disguised as “Ricciardo”) to rescue him.
Meanwhile, Alcina’s randy sister, Morgana, fancies “Ricciardo”, in favour of whom she jilts her lover, Oronte. Sub-plots are then thrown in, including a teenage boy (Oberto) coming to rescue his father from Alcina’s clutches.
Add to all this the fact that the story is told as a cabaret (design and lighting, Edoardo Sanchi and Bruno Poet), with rows of dancing women on plywood sets (a communal dressing room, a bar, a bedroom) which the characters cheerfully push around the stage. How could this farrago possibly honour Handel’s most sublime score?
But with a lovely full-circle revelation at the close, it does that job beautifully. And better, in fact, than a conventional treatment might have done, because the burlesque style somehow lets the human truth of these shattered relationships emerge vividly.
Soprano Jane Archibald’s plangently vulnerable Alcina truly convinces as she desperately snatches at a last chance of romance, becoming distraught when her power evaporates.
Fellow soprano Soraya Mafi’s Morgana – gorgeously sung, and brilliantly acted (and danced) – is a spitfire incarnation nicely counterbalanced by tenor Stuart Jackson’s comically Wildean Oronte, whose jealous rage sparks the denouement.
As Ruggiero, mezzo Samantha Hankey makes something psychologically interesting out of her tormented character, while mezzo Beth Taylor’s Bradamante projects a baritonal firmness as the voice of reason. Soprano Rowan Pierce’s vocally shining Oberto stirs the emotions.
But the glory of the evening is Handel’s, as his chains of exquisite da capo arias unfurl with gentle grace. We hold our breath in sympathy with Alcina’s anguished “Ah! mio cor!”; time stands still for Ruggiero’s luminous “Verdi prati”.
Jonathan Cohen and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment spin skeins of beauty, and Micheli ensures that we raptly savour the musical high points, with no movement on stage, and just one cello mingling its voice with that of the solo singers.
To 24 August (glyndebourne.com)
Richard III, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
This is a production that genuinely makes history: it’s the first time that the title role of Shakespeare’s villainous king has been played for the RSC by a disabled actor. Starring Arthur Hughes, who has radial dysplasia, it’s helmed by the company’s artistic director emeritus Gregory Doran, who stepped down in April, and whose late husband, Antony Sher, delivered a career-defining interpretation of Richard using crutches.
Hughes’ version has all the unsettling charisma and sly, ink-black humour the role demands, but also exposes Gloucester’s torment in a world that treats him with suspicion and revulsion. The abuse heaped upon him is cruel and shameful: “abortive, rooting hog”, “diffused infection of a man”, “lump of foul deformity”, “bunch-backed toad”. His will to power becomes sociopathic. But it’s not difficult to see why he’s possessed by murderous rage, or how internalising so much hatred has dangerously warped his personality.
Hughes’ Richard is the crowning glory of a staging that is otherwise more solid than exceptional. It’s delivered with Doran’s customary intelligence, but nothing in it comes close to Hughes’ dark dazzle.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set is dominated by a monument to the dead of the Wars of the Roses that resembles the Cenotaph, an anachronistic touch highlighting the timeless human cost of conflict. Ashley D Gayle’s Edward ascends the throne amid white rose wreaths and balloons under a blood-red sky, with Hughes, in black leather, thorn-sharp and lethally smiling. This Richard relishes dressing up: after he successfully – to his own surprise – wins over Rosie Sheehy’s fierce Lady Anne, his ruthless confidence swells; he swaggers in thigh boots and bejewelled doublets, and delightedly admires his own looming shadow.
His talent for manipulative playacting – whether as seducer, genial party guest or religious penitent feigning reluctance to claim the crown – is born of survival tactics: a means of seizing agency and an ingrained habit of hiding his hurt when his physicality is mocked or insulted.
The mask slips, and suddenly he’s a lonely, unloved little boy, helpless in his pain. When Sheehy spits violently in his face, or Kirsty Bushell’s bitterly pragmatic, grief-battered Elizabeth, Edward’s widow, makes a desperate bid to save her daughter by offering herself to Richard, it’s a queasy spectacle of psycho-sexual power play, in which neither woman can win.
The assorted courtiers and conspirators, though, are more indistinctly drawn, apart from two comically self-serving assassins, sidekick goons whose antics are tension-sapping. Fleeting use of live video also feels like an afterthought.
But Richard’s ghostly visions at Bosworth Field see his victims risen from the grave as a parade of stretcher-bearing Grim Reapers in gore-soaked robes: a phantasmagoric climax to a staging in which Hughes’ Richard indisputably rules.
To 8 October (01789 331111)