Christmas is always an exciting time at the Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol. I must admit, I am all a little bit ‘bah humbug’ about the whole festive season but the family show at the Tobacco Factory is one of the few things about Christmas I really look forward to. I also would far rather bring the kids to see a proper theatre show rather than a Pantomime. I really hate Panto, why people choose it over some of the other great theatre offerings is really beyond me. But that’s probably the Grinch in me talking.
This year, the Tobacco Factory Theatre, New International Encounter and Cambridge Junction join together for their co-production of Beauty and the Beast. You would have had to have been living in a cave all your life to not be familiar with this story which some academics have traced back 4,000 years, especially as Disney made a glossy Hollywood adaption of the film in 2017 starring Harry Potter actor Emma Watson. This theatre version from director Alex Byrne takes its inspiration from the original French fairy tale and promises to be more stripped back than the Disney version. Deep in the forest lives a beast with a terrible curse cast upon him, and stories of his terrifying appearance have become legendary. Also residing on the edge of the forest is a family fallen on hard times and struggling to make ends meet in their tiny ramshackle cottage. On a mission to restore the family fortune, father Maurice stumbles upon the castle of the beast, and makes a fatal error when he picks a rose from the garden. Enraged that the last thing of beauty has been stolen from him, the Beast promises to kill Maurice. The only thing that can save him is his daughter Isabella, who must promise to live with the Beast for the rest of her life. Can her dislike of the Beast eventually turn to love? Can she not only save her father, but also save the Beast from his cursed and lonely life?
I very much felt this was a show of two halves. I really enjoyed the second half and felt it was much stronger than the opening, which took just a little to long to get moving. For me, the absolute stand out performer in this show was Martin Bonger who deftly and wonderfully played the character of the Beast. I absolutely adored his performance; he was funny, charming, and energetically physical with his portrayal of a beastly character. At just the right side of scary for the kids and a great comic actor, he made this show really memorable. All of the actors were also excellent musicians, and the music in this show was also one of the highlights. All credit to Musical Director Elliot Davis for doing a great job. Sara Lessore gave a solid performance as Isabella and really shined at the end when her love for the Beast blossomed, but I couldn’t help but slightly agree with her sisters that she was just so ‘good’ that yes, she was a bit of a creep! At times, this drifted into feeling a little bit too much like a panto, and I felt that the sisters played by Samantha Sutherland and Elliot Davies could have toned down their performance a little, as it verged at times on being a little over the top. That said, they definitely did get the biggest laughs from the audience, so again maybe it was just me.
I wasn’t able to bring either of my girls to see the show, but my friend who accompanied me is also a mother to two children the same age as mine. The show is recommended for 5+, but we both agreed that it would probably be a little too much in terms of running time and theatricality for our five-year-old daughters. I’d say that around 7+ would be a better age recommendation, as the children in the audience who were around that age clearly loved it. Although I did not fall hopelessly in love with this show, it was clear from the rest of the audience that they did; I don’t think I have heard such rapturous applause from an audience in the round at this theatre. Perhaps it was because this show strayed a bit too much into the ‘Panto’ territory at times, perhaps it was because I am just not enough of an old romantic and, yes, I am a Christmas Grinch. I’d still recommend the show though, it was an enjoyable evening and well received by the audience on the night I saw it.
Beauty and The Beast is on at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 14th January 2018
Review by Karen Blake