Review: Beauty and the Beast at The Black-E

By Nigel Smith

THERE has hardly been an evening since the end of November when I haven’t been covering a Christmas show somewhere in the region, from Southport to Chester and New Brighton to St Helens, so you’d think by now I’d be all pantoed out?

Oh no I’m not – and, with this Beauty and the Beast from Drops of Light CIC, my panto schedule reaches its conclusion on a rather lovely note.

This is theatre made by the community, for the community. Recently formed Drops of Light are a community interest company, and alongside a core cast of 7 professional principals are a splendid team of young players, most of whom are still studying performing arts at academies and theatre schools in and around the City. Joining them are a supporting cast of community performers selected through open auditions.

In the Black-E’s in-the-round theatre space the stage design relies mainly on a series of elaborate props to take us from scene to scene, and the stage is filled with colour thanks to over 250 beautifully crafted costumes.

Writer Jessica Lea has clearly taken inspiration from Disney’s version of the story, but has transported it to Liverpool. Just about every panto in the city scouses up the script to within an inch of its life, sometimes rather self-consciously, but this one does it with enormous wit and good humour. Belle has become Belle Vale and her father is Egbert (say it out loud – go on!). She has two rather shallow and unpleasant sisters, Croxteth and Toxteth, and two irritating brothers Zak (short for Fazakerley) and Norris (dressed in green). The self-important love rival for the prince has an “r” dropped into Gaston, while Fairy Rose Lane keeps an eye on proceedings and makes sure we’re following the story. As for the prince, who spends most of the story being less than handsome, turns out to be none other than Prince John Paul George – it may be a mouthful, the script observes, but it has a good Ringo to it.

Tori Hargreaves and Nick Langmeade in the title roles are both in fine voice and cut quite a dash at the ball. All the cast, in fact, are great vocalists, notably Helen Carter as Fairy Rose. Watch out for her belting delivery of Holding Out for a Hero. Ciaran Kellgren is splendidly funny as the narcissistic Garston, and he delivers an enormously physical performance. Alan Stocks is an ebullient and witty Egbert, and seasoned panto dame Jamie Greer delights as Dame Dolly, in a never-ending series of frocks, turning him into everything from a teapot to a dinner table. Last but by no means least comes Adam McCoy, whose Basic Bertie also transforms into some ludicrous outfits. He shares storytelling duties with Rose, and the audience interaction sequences with Dolly.

The supporting cast all give great performances, and the huge chorus of junior dancers along with the community ensemble, have been well choreographed to keep the stage full of movement. Watch out for some splendid rhubarb happening in the corners while the action goes on centre-stage.

Under Sam Donovan’s direction this show has been put together with such obvious love and care that it would be a hard hearted panto-goer indeed not to be thoroughly charmed by it – even after a full month of the genre!

Beauty and the Beast is at the Black E until 31st Decembe and there are still some tickets available. The company have promised to be back again so keep your eyes peeled for more Drops of Light, bringing an affectionately community spirited sparkle to the stage.