BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Bristol Hippodrome
Established in 1946 and making the Birmingham Hippodrome its home since 1990, the Birmingham Royal Ballet is the UK's leading classical ballet touring company. Originally premiering in 2003, David Bintley's Beauty and the Beast may be turning 16 this year, but this beautifully haunting and evocative adaptation of the original 18th-century gothic fairy tale proves its spell is as potent as ever.
A cruel Prince and his hunting party happen upon a vixen in the woods. Disgusted by his selfish behaviour, a Woodsman rescues the animal and curses the Prince, transforming him into a terrifying Beast, whilst the vixen is transformed into a Wild Girl.
Later, a merchant, searching for refuge, finds the castle, remembers a promise he made to his youngest daughter to bring her a rose, and plucks one from the garden. He's discovered by the Beast, and offers Belle in exchange for his freedom. The love of this spirited young woman gives the Beast his last chance for salvation...
Phillip Prowse's sumptuous design evokes true fairy tale style; lavish set-pieces and props move in and out, like turning pages in a book, encompassing the forest, Belle's home and the Beast's castle. There are some delightful moments within the set design, such as when Belle's weary father settles down to sleep in the castle chair and its arms settle around him like a hug, or when candles flicker to life at the raising of the Beast's hand. You know full well that there's some backstage wizardry involved, but the sense of wonder and playfulness is truly palpable and endearing.
The whole effect is enhanced beautifully by Mark Jonathan's incredibly atmospheric lighting, which cleverly blends light and dark in the scenes between our titular characters. Dry ice also works well throughout, though there are occasions where this becomes a little overwhelming, and the emotional power of certain scenes might better impact if you could see the dancers' eyes and expressions unimpeded.
Glenn Buhr's luscious, dreamy score is played impeccably by the Royal Ballet Simfonia, driving the storytelling and sustaining the atmosphere powerfully.
Though the familiar parts and central themes of the story are all there, Bintley's additions and subtle twists make things feel fresh and exciting - for example, the Prince's courtiers joining him cursed as the woodland creatures he once hunted. His direction revels in the constant interplay between the extremes of light and dark, but the balance is always well judged.
Notably, Act Two opens with a ball, where months have passed and the Beast once more asks Belle to marry him, as has become his nightly custom. The ensemble, dressed in finery but masked by rather creepy animal faces, whirl around Belle and the Beast as they waltz - joyful yet sinister in equal measure.
That being said, throughout there are moments of real fun and wit that get the audience laughing - including the farcical wedding ceremony, where the greedy pig-nosed Monsier Cochon (James Barton) cannot decide which of Belle's spoilt and mean-spirited sisters he wants to wed, and where Belle's father dancing with a seemingly ancient Grandmére (Marion Tait) goes repeatedly awry.
The athleticism and talent that abounds within the company is astonishing. Delia Mathews is charming and likeable as Belle, her emotional journey demonstrated as gracefully through her movement as her facial expressions.
Her Beast and Prince at this performance, Tyrone Singleton, is commanding and charismatic, and they complement each other incredibly well. The Beast seems like a difficult role to dance, as the face is suitably covered while having to convey personality and complex emotional depth, but Singleton more than rises to the challenge.
Their duet when Belle first arrives at the castle is a great example: his movements gradually soften in the face of her fear, whereas when the dance begins there is arrogance as he attempts to show dominance over her. The emotional dynamics shift so subtly but powerfully, perhaps hinting at the familiar ending to come, that by the time we arrive there the audience's investment in the pair and their relationship already feels firmly cemented.
Yaoqian Shan is a delight as the Wild Girl, the figure who supports Belle and the Beast in their different times of need, and Michael O'Hare charming as Belle's father. The entire company lift, spin, and jump their way through Bintley's imaginative choreography with such ease that's quite breathtaking, reinterpreting the familiar anew with contemporary flashes amidst the traditional ballet elements.
The result is a production that, much like its fairy tale counterpart, is sure to leave audiences happy ever after.
Photo Credit: Bill Cooper