I had high expectations for this pantomime version of Beauty and the Beast, having previously enjoyed excellent panto productions at the Oxford Playhouse and also being a fan of the stage show, which I've seen both in London and Oxford. Starting off on a high note with a song and dance routine of 'Happy' by Pharrell Williams, the audience were clapping along, engaged and hopeful.
Written and directed by Blue Peter's Peter Duncan, who was in the audience and chatted to audience members during the interval, the traditional tale had been panto-fied - this meant the plot was severely curtailed to make way for jokes, song and dance performances, and other tried and tested tricks, including the inclusion of a Dame, a performing dog and, of course, the old 'he's behind you!' routine.
The story of Belle, the lovely sister who ends up being traded to the Beast by her father, wasn't explained in detail - if you've seen the Disney movie you'll recall a long scary journey through the forest where the father gets lost and ends up at the Beast's castle etc etc which wasn't included in detail...I felt the plot was largely skipped over in order to meet the criteria of panto, and although I'm sure many audience members, both adults and children, understood the plot because of their prior knowledge of the story, I'm not sure it all made sense for a newcomer. For example, as we know from the story, the Beast was cursed and was relying on Belle to fall truly in love with him before the last petal on the red rose falls, so he can turn back into what every girl wants for Christmas (in a Disney world, anyway)...a handsome prince. However, there was a beautiful interlude in which an acrobatic dancer played out the petals falling from the rose. All of them. But the Beast still ends up turning into the handsome prince at the end, anyway.
The stars of the panto were undoubtedly Dame Jolena Jollychops (Leon Craig), who's over-the-top panto antics kept all ages entertained, with a few cheeky one-liners and interesting take on audience participation making the adults chuckle whilst going over the heads of the kids. Tumbletoes, Beauty's acrobatic pet dog (Kate McWilliam) was a great addition - entertaining and loved by the children. The Beast (Alan Vicary) was excellent - scary, powerful with a terrifying mask and a fantastic singing voice. In particular, his performance of 'Stay With Me' was haunting and emotional. Some younger members of the audience were frightened by his appearance so perhaps the costume was a little too scary for such a young audience, but I thought he was very good.
Other omissions from the Disney version which I felt would have worked really well in a panto were the characters at the Beast's castle including Luminaire and the other staff members who had been turned into household items - these characters could have been used in the panto, but perhaps their omission was due to the story being adapted from the original children's tale rather than the movie version.
So did it work? As a panto, yes, it ticked most of the boxes. As a story, not really. But does it matter for a Christmas family play? All together now....'oh no it doesn't!' (Sorry!) :-)