Somehow I was expecting this to be a dark version of Beauty and the Beast told through shadow puppetry. The promotion picture alludes to shadow puppetry, as does the name of the company and the description promises to be ‘reimagined with puppetry and live music... 100% Walt-free without a talking candlestick in sight’. There was indeed use of puppetry but no shadow puppetry. Instead of a talking candlestick there are talking (and singing) frogs, a pig that drives and a beast that is half-man, quarter-fluffy-head and quarter-incredibly-long-fluffy-arms.
A cast of 12 put on a somewhat changed version of this classic story, introducing a vegetarian Beauty and a guitar-playing Beast. There is a live score with the performance, performed by a band of four that stays on stage throughout. The band is good, although they don’t really know what to do with themselves on stage when they are not playing, either looking bored and uninterested in what’s going on on stage or smiling along with the action, distracting attention from events in the play. The singers are also quite good, especially Beauty herself, and some of the lyrics and puns are funny. Nico, the gay butler, stole the scene by having the best comic timing and arguably the best lines.
However, it wasn’t enough to pull the show up from an otherwise bland performance: it felt as if it were a school play. Some lines are meant for adults – such as Beauty not confusing affection with Stockholm Syndrome – but most of the text and action has been clad in cotton for the younger generation. They don’t need to be handled with kid gloves.
The Beast never has a moment of any danger, cruelty or monstrousness and the performance becomes rather flat with no climax whatsoever. His first encounter took place offstage and only his voice was heard, sounding more like a teenage boy than a scary beast. When he does appear, his costume is ineffective - perhaps this is where the shadow puppetry I was expecting could have come into play. Some of the acting was much too over the top, such as Beauty’s catty sisters with their endless eye–rolling, although they still ended up being scarier than the Beast himself ever was. Beauty’s father’s bad jokes were cringe-worthy and his apology after voluntarily offering Beauty to the Beast was unconvincing. The costumes were clichéd - there’s nothing like stripy t-shirts to show that the story takes place in France.
Better use could have been made of transitions, levels and the space to give the performance of a less amateur feel. After one of Nico’s jokes, he and the rest of the onstage cast have a moment of clocking the audience which works well and it could have been nice to see more of this. The company is young and has time to improve and focus on their skills, such as musicality. In future, they could work more on the depth of the characters, instead of prop-making. Less is more.