Birmingham Royal Ballet, Beauty and the Beast.
**** (4 stars)
I have to confess up front that I’m addicted to the Emma Watson film: so I approached this ballet with some doubts in my mind: how could the story be told compellingly and convincingly without any words? Well, it was, and I’d gladly see it again.
Danced to an inventive, original score by Canadian composer Glenn Buhr, this version of the story begins by showing how the Prince became a Beast. The cruel, heartless Prince only lived for hunting: he was pursuing a vixen when a Woodsman appeared to protect her and turn her into a red-headed girl before turning the Prince into the Beast and his huntsmen into the animals he felt they were.
In the Merchant’s house, Belle’s father is facing ruin as his trading ship has not returned: the bailiffs are already in the house, removing most of its contents. Monsieur Cochon [complete with cute pig nose] offers to bankroll him, but news appears of the ship’s safe arrival and Cochon’s money is returned to him. As their father prepares to collect his merchandise, Belle’s two self-absorbed and selfish sisters demand extravagant presents, while Belle asks only for a rose. The Merchant gets lost in a storm, finds a mysterious castle and shelter for the night, and as he is leaving picks a rose – the Beast appears and demands that the Merchant give him Belle in exchange for his life. The story unfolds until Belle is allowed to go home to her father, with another rose – she must return before it withers, or the Beast will die. Her sisters delay her leaving, and when she arrives back the Beast is on the point of death – but Belle’s revelation that she loves him saves his life: the Woodsman reappears to turn everyone, including the Vixen, back into their original form, and everyone Lives Happily Ever After.
The set designs, especially of the Beast’s castle, were superb – a towering, mysterious structure in black and gold which unfolded and then unfolded again to reveal a golden door through which the Merchant and then Belle entered, before emerging into the castle interior which again seemed to stretch for miles. Candles lit themselves, a massive carved chair moved up behind the weary traveller – its arms even came out to enfold the sleeper. Belle and the Beast were alone in the darkness until a crowd of courtiers, beautifully dressed in shades of cream, gold, and black formed the backdrop for a magnificent ball during which the Beast proposed but was once again refused.
This was in delightful contrast to the slightly shabby but well-lit home of the Merchant, complete with a collection of large stuffed birds of prey. There was much humour in the antics of Belle’s sisters, Fière and Vanité [Ruth Brill and Samara Downs] and the chubby, self-important M. Cochon [James Barton]. The Merchant was expressively danced by senior ballet master Michael O’Hare, showing that there can be a long dancing life even after principal roles are given up. Lachlan Monaghan brought great agility to the cameo role of Bailiff, and Laura Day’s brief appearance as Grandmère, complete with wildly-waving walking stick, was equally noteworthy. Beatrice Parma made a charming vixen, and Yaoqian Shang’s Wild Girl, despite being his quarry in animal form, was the one who supported him as he began to die, and grieved deeply at his death.
The Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet did sterling work as hunters, birds of the air and of the forest, beasts at the court and guests at the wedding. I particularly enjoyed the massed birds’ weaving their way round each other and then suddenly dancing in unison, and the many different individual characters of birds and beasts – and the fantastic costumes and the masks which must have offered their own challenge to the dancers.
Delia Matthews’ Belle was tender, loving, terrified, lonely, desolate and finally glowing with happiness when she realised the Prince with whom she was dancing was in fact her beloved Beast. Tyrone Singleton’s power and arrogance took a long time to give way to love and humility – even at the ball he was furious rather than saddened by Belle’s refusal: but hopefully her generosity taught him the humility and reverence for life that he so conspicuously lacked before he met her.
This was an evening of enchantment, and the packed house was loud in its enthusiastic appreciation.
Birmingham Royal Ballet presents Beauty and the Beast, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh runs until Saturday 16th March, then on UK tour for tickets go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/brb-beauty-and-the-beast
Review by Mary Woodward