Chichester Festival Theatre, until December 31.
To those of us who’ve always thought of Beauty and the Beast as yet another weird and pointless fairy tale, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre offer the perfect riposte with a production which is quite simply stunning. There is no other word for it.
The youth theatre deliver a version of the story which comes with huge emotional oomph in a show brimful of poignancy and absolutely beautiful throughout.
The youth theatre’s wonderful A Christmas Carol of a couple of years ago seemed unsurpassable; but surpass it they certainly have – definitely the best show they’ve produced in my 23 years of watching them. This is a show as classy as it is confident, a vibrant retelling framed in a new World War Two context which is thought through perfectly to give a coherent basis from which the fantasy takes flight.
Maybe key to it all is the way the beast is brought to life – a problem which costume designer Ryan Dawson Laight, movement director Lizzi Gee and puppetry specialist Nick Barnes solve perfectly, giving the young actors who inhabit him the best possible chance to make him live and breathe.
On Tuesday the role fell to Hal Darling who proves monstrously good in the part, the raging beast who slowly shows his true colours when he effectively abducts Beauty into his life. Opposite Hal on Tuesday was Mia Cunningham-Stockdale as Beauty, a part she carries astonishingly. It’s tempting to say her assurance is remarkable if it weren’t for the fact her assurance is so clearly completely natural.
Between them the two offer the most beautiful of love duets, the Beast initially all fury and then pretty much begging, Beauty at first understandably hacked off but then slowly tumbling to the charms the poor Beast can’t help but hide.
It’s a tale about seeing what’s below the surface, and Hal and Mia show the emerging, intertwining affections with a delicacy and an intimacy which really ought to be impossible on a stage as large as this in front of more than a thousand people. Individually our Beauty and our Beast are excellent, but the richness of their performance is almost palpable in the way they work together. The Beast unbends, realises the way to her heart is through his garden; and Beauty sees beyond a hideousness which had a few of the really young kiddies in the audience in tears. In fairness, the CFT does offer appropriate age guidance for this show.
Lightening it all up with plenty of camp hilarity is Crispin Glancy who gives us a mincing costumier in a wonderful comic turn. The way he holds the stage, the detail in his performance, in fact everything about him suggests yet another total natural on the boards.
But as ever, with Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, it seems unfair just to pick out a few names from a cast which so clearly draws its strength from the way it works together. The teamwork is an absolute delight, especially in the big numbers – moments when it is worth casting your eyes from side to side. Absolutely no one is simply standing there. Everyone is in their role, in their moment – huge credit to the meticulousness of director Dale Rooks. Dale has become, in the very best sense, a Chichester institution with her succession of outstanding youth theatre productions. Of course, the youngsters are talented – but it never fails to amaze just how brilliant Dale is at nurturing it, encouraging it and giving it the confidence to occupy the stage.
Anna Ledwich has written a superb new telling of the tale, but a challenging one – and the cast rises to it beautifully, particularly in the songs by Richard Taylor. There’s something very Into The Woods-ish about many of them. They cannot be easy to sing, and yet the cast carry them perfectly on yet another excellent Simon Higlett set, just perfect for the production, versatile and rich in atmosphere.