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Review – Beauty and the Beast  – Epstein Theatre Liverpool

IT almost is a tale as old as time, with roots going back to the 16th century, but the story of Beauty and the Beast has thankfully been very much simplified over the centuries from some of its convoluted and complex beginnings.

Another seemingly neverending story is that of the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over any company trying to mount a stage show in these extraordinary times. It was the final straw that closed Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre last year, but now the theatre is open again, under a new management team, which has brought Jane Joseph and Chantelle Nolan back to their spiritual home on Hanover Street, operating the venue alongside Bill Elms.

Beauty and the Beast opened last Thursday, and it seemed as though disaster might have struck on the morning of Monday’s press performance, when both the show’s leading man Ben Richards and its Fairy, Kelly Sweeney, returned positive covid tests. But this has been a year in which the ‘show must go on’ spirit has been strong in the industry and, at extraordinarily short notice, other company members have stepped in to breach (and indeed the breeches).

An unfazed choreographer Nazene Langfield appears, quite literally, in a puff of smoke in front of the curtain to wave her wand and narrate the story. The genuinely astonishing standout stand-in however, is Tom Fothergill. He woke up in the morning as a member of the senior dance team for the show, but by teatime he was ready to take the stage as Gaston, and what a performance he gives! Belle’s repeated rebuffs of his amorous advances offer the occasional opportunity for various cast members to rib him for not being Ben Richards, but if it hadn’t been made clear that he is a replacement in the part, nobody would believe it. You might expect a dancer in the company to get the moves off pat quickly, but to add to that a supremely confident singing and acting role is hugely impressive.

Lauren McCrory brings us a nicely judged Belle. It’s a rags to riches role that she carries off with great style. Opposite her is Benjamin Keith as the Prince and the Beast. He downplays the stuffed shirt aloofness of the part in his earlier princely scenes, and allows the character’s softness of heart to shine through from behind the hairy beast mask.

Much of the traditional panto comedy business is left to our Dame – Potty Polly – played here with relish by Jamie Greer, and to Lewis Devine as French Frank, hyperactive as ever and a clear favourite with the children in the audience. These comic interludes don’t quite fit seamlessly into the storytelling, but it wouldn’t be panto without them, and this wacky duo are huge fun.

This version of the story presents the mysterious enchantress who turns the Prince into the Beast as the evil Madame Botox, who is also Gaston’s mother. She is played by the extraordinary James Lacey, and the pairing of Botox and Gaston treats us to some excellent vocals from both Lacey and Fothergill.

It is a real joy to see panto return to the Epstein, and this heartwarming show is a great way to welcome audiences back to the much loved theatre. With great music, glitzy sets and costumes and a splendid cast this is an excellent piece of family entertainment. It’s often hard to pick favourites, but the stars of the show here have to be James Lacey and Tom Fothergill, both of whom bring us outstanding performances.

Star rating – 4½ stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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