Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Newbury Corn Exchange

This high-energy, gorgeously chaotic production will keep viewers of all ages entertained

By: Dec. 01, 2023
Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Newbury Corn Exchange

Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Newbury Corn Exchange As pantomime season descends upon us again, and every theatre in every part of the country is staging its own festive offering, it can be difficult to stand out – but Newbury Corn Exchange has done just that, with this high-energy, gorgeous production of Beauty and the Beast. It’s an all-singing, all-dancing show that will keep viewers of all ages laughing, and have the grown-ups exchanging glances at some of the more suggestive jokes.

Writing team Clare Plested, Adam Brown and Amanda Wilsher (who also directs) present us with a slightly different take on the story made so familiar by the Disney films – the premise is the same but some of the characters have been rearranged, replaced or cut completely. The result is a much more rewarding, original and interesting pantomime. Belle (Chloe Gentles) has no tragic backstory, is beloved in her village and doesn’t have to suffer the affections of any cruel men: instead, our villain is a jealous witch who cursed the Beast (Nathan Shaw) after he refused to dance with her at a school disco. His castle isn’t populated with animated furniture, but a pair of rodents who were magically made human-sized in order to serve him.

It’s also got a local flavour to it: Belle lives in the village of Newburyshire, the Beast resides in Highclere Castle (better known as Downton Abbey), and there are lots of jokes at the expense of the local Kennet Shopping Centre. At the start of the show, Jade Johnson’s Fairy Common asks for a cheer from everyone who lives in Newbury, then another from everyone who does not: locals will enjoy the occasional references, but non-residents won’t feel left out. There are plenty of contemporary mentions of events during this year, from bedbugs to the Barbie movie, which are a delight.

Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Newbury Corn Exchange

Unlike many pantomimes taking place in local theatres this Christmas, there isn’t any particularly starry casting – no ex-Love Island contestants, former soap actors or the like. This is no loss at all, because the result is a very tight cast of ten phenomenally talented performers all doing what they do best. In fact, it was hard to believe that there are only ten of them – including three ensemble members – because they have the energy of a much larger group.

Gentles is a charming heroine as Belle, opposite Shaw’s gruff but loveable Beast. Jenny Perry is a deliciously evil and camp Wicked Witch of Reading West (another local reference), opposite Johnson’s bumbling Fairy Common, who does an excellent line in some rather risqué innuendoes. To a similar end, Graham Mackay-Bruce gives a hilarious performance as Belle’s mother Pansy. However, the show was stolen by Lois Elizabeth Glenister and Robbie Noonan as comic double-act Ratty and Batty, whose combined energy was outstanding and a real pleasure to witness.

The cast performs many of the hallmarks of contemporary pantomime – a chaotic rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" another song in which a monster scares off the characters one by one – but what’s surprising is that the show’s climax, in which the Beast is feared dead, carries genuine emotional weight. The characters turn suddenly solemn but it doesn’t feel disingenuous at all, and prompts real joy in the inevitable happy ending. There is also plenty of audience interaction, including some of the actors clambering through the seats, much to the delight of the children in the audience.

Review: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Newbury Corn Exchange

The music, supervised by James Keay, is well-chosen, and includes recent hits like "Dance the Night" (from the Barbie film) and a wonderfully badass rendition of Miley Cyrus’s "Flowers". The pit band comprises a mere two musicians – musical director Ben Barrow on keys and percussionist Luke Hinchcliffe – which is unbelievable because the music feels and sounds like the work of more players. The cast are excellent singers (we are spared a minor celebrity attempting to hold a tune), and bring real energy and precision to Holly Hughes' brilliant choreography.

This is matched by the design of the show, which is relentlessly and gloriously sparkly. Mark Walters’s set and costume design (the latter with Carl Davies) is stunning, from the high camp of the Wicked Witch and the dame’s many iconic looks to the grubby charm of Ratty and Batty’s fur suits, all played against a colourful and glittering backdrop. This spirit is sustained by Nathan Smith’s sound design, and the lighting by Guy Dickens and Vicky Allen – there were moments in the show where even the adults were caught up in the magic of a glitterball spinning in the middle of the room, or ‘snow’ falling on the audience.

There isn’t a catch or a twist to this production: rather than trying to do something different or unique, the Corn Exchange offers us a proper, traditional pantomime, with all the trimmings we’ve come to expect from shows at this time of year. It’s a huge amount of fun, and a very welcome reminder of just how good a panto can be when it’s done to a standard as high as this.

Beauty and the Beast runs at Newbury Corn Exchange until 31 December

Photo credit: The Other Richard