Sunday, January 10, 2016

Beauty and the Beast - Ickle Pickle Productions

Review by John Lombard

"Be our guest." Belle has had some hard luck. To free her slightly addled father from the clutches of a bullying (but obscenely wealthy) monster, she has had to consent to become a prisoner in exchange for his freedom. But although she is a prisoner she refuses to be a dinner guest, much to the frustration and outrage of the Beast who declares that if she will not present herself at dinner then she will starve.

However, as it so happens, the furniture and tableware in this particular castle are all enchanted servants, and the only way they can become human again is if this Belle and this Beast make a love match. So they begin a charm offensive, slipping her down to the kitchen for a lean supper presented by acrobatic dancing dishes. If true love can’t be achieved, maybe Stockholm Syndrome will qualify.

Beauty and the Beast is a fairy-tale of enormous power and resonance, and to the credit of the Disney scriptwriting team it is successfully trimmed of its dodgier elements, like a rose with its thorns clipped off. The Beast threatens, imprisons, starves, and isolates Belle, but somehow mysteriously she does not appreciate his efforts on her behalf. I pictured the Beast retreating to his private quarters to post on Facebook about how women are all shallow and just don’t appreciate a nice guy when they meet one. It’s a good thing his teapot treats her with kindness and respect.

While the Beast’s wooing needs some polish, the script does weigh the scales in favour of romance. Importantly, the Beast is aware that he is a bit of an asshole and does actually make an effort to change. He starts off as a selfish jerk, but as the story progresses his genuine love of Belle (and her example of selflessness) teaches him to put her needs before his own - and more than that, he realises that she is not supposed to automatically reciprocate his love. The brawny and vain Gaston, by contrast, like any true narcissist responds to Belle’s rejection with vindictive cruelty. Belle is smart enough to recognise when a guy genuinely cares about her.

But more than that, Belle and the Beast do have enough in common that they can authentically relate to each other. The Beast obviously became sullen, withdrawn and spiteful after his unfortunate encounter with an enchantress (fairy-tale code, perhaps, for the fallout from a particularly nasty break-up). Belle, on the other hand, has also experienced sorrow: the early death of her mother has clearly left a mark on her, and she has the burden of being principal carer for her eccentric father. Her town only know the sunshine of life, and so there is no-one she can connect with to share her deepest feelings. There is a flip reference to how they are both outsiders, but their mutual pain and need for solitude is the real seed of their relationship. And of course, in a very human touch, when Belle sees how magnificent the Beast’s library is she starts to see partnership with its owner in a more inviting light.

This is a production where the (mostly very young) cast obviously have deep enthusiasm for the material, and this is expressed in very energetic and committed performances. The tone is light and brisk and fun, with rollicking ensemble numbers such as the showcase "Be Our Guest" and lively pub song "Gaston". Excellent pacing enforced by director Jordan Best means that when we come to the quieter numbers such as the memorable "Beauty and the Beast" they come as welcome respites rather than lulls in the action.

A picture book set by Steve Galinec and Anita Davenport is supported by very effective sound (Susan Davenport) and light (Caitlin Jones) design to create a sense of place. Jodi Hammond’s choreography is also just plain fun, with quirky touches giving life to the athletic movement of an unusually talented ensemble. One particular highlight is the climactic castle siege scene, done without the benefit of an actual castle set. This scene is created with clever choreography and short vignettes, and manages to be thrilling and funny just through the energy of the performers and the attention to detail in the direction.

Costumes by Miriam Miley-Reed and Meika Vigalante go above and beyond, creating faithful replicas of recognisable Disney outfits but with inventive flourishes that delighted the audience. The costumes of the cursed humans are particularly engaging, with one human wardrobe actually opening up to dispense outfits, and a candelabra's lights capable of being snuffed on cue. The effort that has gone into costuming is genuinely noticeable and adds a lot of reality to the play's fantastic setting. The constant small additions to the servant costumes as they lost more of their humanity were a reminder that Beauty and the Beast's romance are on a clock, and gave an ever-present sense of urgency and tension.

In a piece as character driven as this, running through the accomplishments of the cast can feel like reading a litany, and there is always the danger of excluding someone. From start to finish the performing was a delight, but here are some highlights. Kaitlin Nihill's Belle was fragile and petite but clearly had a schoolmistress' measure of the men around her. Belle is the most likeable and charismatic of the Disney princesses, and Nihill finds her selflessness but also her spunk. Adam Salter as the Beast exploited his character's mystery in a careful introduction to the audience, and found the appropriate gruffness, and being paired with a diminutive Belle made him look far more hulking than he actually is. Among the servants, Amy Jenkins was radiant and maternal as teapot Mrs. Potts, Zara McCann was irrepressible as teapot Chip, Bojana Kos sultry as feather duster Babette, Rebecca Franks a perfect diva as wardrobe la Grand Bouche, and Patrick Galen-Mules fussy as the tightly wound clock Cogsworth. Among the humans, Liam Jones impressed us with his guns and pettiness as Gaston, while Lachlan Burke elevated a minor character to chief attraction as his toady Lefou.

But even with such a great cast, the one who shone the most brightly was, appropriately enough, candlestick Lumiere, with Pip Carroll playing the Frenchified maître d' with wonderful enthusiasm and humour. Whether he is wooing Belle because his master has no idea what he is doing, trading barbs with Cogsworth or cavorting with the equally louche Babette, Carroll is a delight, and was at times at danger of, if not of putting the show in his pocket and walking off with it, at least of stuffing a lot of it into the commodious Ms. La Grand Bouche.

Hopefully audiences are savvy enough to not take the Beast's behaviour as a lesson in good dating practice, but Ickle Pickle's new production of Beauty and the Beast is a showcase of what can happen when a talented cast and skilled production team come together on a project they clearly love. The only real quibble I have is that in many of the solos the volume of the singers was much too quiet with voices squelched by the music. Beauty and the Beast is a warm, funny realisation of a classic, and your only real barrier to enjoyment is your tolerance for that uniquely Disney polishing-up and de-clawing of fairy tales.