Mia-Cunningham-Stockdale as Beauty. Photo by Pete Jones

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… and there are few things more guaranteed to put us in the Christmas spirit than a Chichester Festival Youth Theatre production. Recent years have given us inspired takes on A Christmas Carol, Roald Dahl’s Witches and Peter Pan, all excellent and this year’s Beauty and The Beast, a new play by Anna Ledwich looks set to keep up the trend!
We start with air raid sirens blaring and a trio of children arriving at a house in the country. They are to be billeted in leafy Sussex until the war is over and despite pining for their family in London they soon fall in with the other children staying in the rickety old manor. The creaks and groans of the old building put the newcomers on edge but the children weave the sounds into the story of a hideous Beast…
It’s an interesting and effective way to set up the story and the half dozen kids act as our guides throughout the tale, chipping in with narration, occasionally getting involved in the action and all too often sharing their own opinions too!
It takes us a little while then to meet our Beauty, and in her homespun overalls, face muddied from a day of gardening, you’d be forgiven for not realising we’re getting a modern take on the character. Even when she is dressed to impress for the Beast she opts for a tailored suit rather than a ballgown! This is a Beauty prized for her kind heart and good nature, not simply her looks. Mia Cunningham-Stockdale invests her with real warmth. The moment she appears you get the impression she is simply a joy to spend time with, and so it proves as she quickly becomes the centre of the story as her father’s merchant business falls apart and he is ruined by the spending of his other children, two vain girls and two spoilt and simpering sons. While the girls get the majority of the dialogue and inhabit the sort of evil sister roles more commonly seen in Cinderella, the boys have all the fun. George Craig’s Henry embraces living in the countryside because “when you live in the country, you shoot things” and George Waller’s Sebastian is as enthusiastic as he is simple-minded, getting the simplest of instructions wrong and revelling in his comic interjections.

Hal Darling as The Beast. Photo by Pete Jones

When we finally arrive at the Beast’s house we find it populated by a cadre of talking animals, from a flamboyant cockatoo who attempt to dress Beauty to an officious pelican we get a wide range of comic characters, the finest of which is Thomas Lunn’s Dot D’Otter, who fetches Beauty when her father is captured and who displays a sort of unwavering, stiff backed Britishness that wouldn’t be out of place in a Noël Coward play.
When we finally meet the Beast himself, he’s a towering, fierce creature but with more warmth than you might see in other versions. Hal Darling masters the physicality involved in the full body puppeteering and manages to convey character consistently. When the man inside the creature is finally revealed his nervous posture and stilted speech portray the awkwardness of his new body and his strange situation perfectly!
Richard Taylor’s music and lyrics fit the storey nicely, nodding to the likes of Stiles & Drewe and Sondheim without ever losing their own feel. Dale Rooks as always makes the most of the mass of youth on the stage and the design would put many West End shows to shame!
If you want to bask in the joy of the season get yourself along to Chichester and let these incredibly talented youngsters tell you an old story in a whole new way!

 

 

Until 31st December. For more information visit cft.org.uk