Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK; October 2, 2014
If you are looking for a good, fairly undemanding night at the ballet, and a feel good story with lots of interest for kids and adults alike, you could do a great deal worse than David Bintley’s “Beauty and the Beast”. Bintley necessarily pares things down a little, but all the essentials of the story of a prince who has been turned into a beast and cursed to live in a dark castle among the animals for being so heartless until he wins the love of a beautiful girl are there. The lady he seeks (Belle) duly arrives after her merchant father, having sought refuge in the castle, picks a rose thus incurring the Beast’s anger, his life only being spared after he agrees that his daughter should come to stay with him. Needless to say, she eventually falls in love with him and the spell is broken.
Tyrone Singleton’s beast may appear just that, but there was always the sense of hidden nobility. He has the stature to carry the role well, even when covered head to toe by his costume. Costumes that cover you from head to toe can make it difficult to create any sort of empathy, but even though he flies into a rage occasionally, most of the time Singleton left you in no doubt that there was a heart not too far beneath the surface.
Elisha Willis was delightful as Belle. What starts as a detached kindness to the Beast (remember she went to his castle as part of her father’s deal, not out of any feeling for him), slowly develops into love. Surely, though, she would have recoiled at least a little when she first saw him. Their final, nicely understated pas de deux, after the Beast returns to his proper princely form, is delicately romantic rather than fiery virtuosic, but fits the ballet well.
Philip Prowse’s set is a grand sight, especially his dark and mysterious castle that frequently towers over the action and that opens and closes like a child’s fold-out book. The stage converts from forest to castle interior, outside to inside in an instant. Magic never seems far away, deft touches including self-lighting candles, a jug that magically rises to fill a goblet all on its own, and a chair that comes alive to cradle whoever is sleeping in it. OK, so it all looks a little Harry Potter, but who cares? Mark Jonathan’s glorious atmospheric lighting only adds to the scene.
There are plenty of memorable moments. The sight of the birds carrying Belle to the Beast’s castle is magical. Their dark costumes and her being held aloft against the almost black background combine to make it look like she is really flying. Tzu-chao Chou’s Raven could have done with a little more menace, though. Laura Day was perfect as the vixen turned into a wild girl, and the ensemble were outstanding as the various animals and birds.
Away from the castle, things are less satisfactory. Back at Bell’s home, and especially at the ball, everyone seems like a forced, two-dimensional, nineteenth-century caricature. You either like the sort of humour that generates or you don’t. I don’t. And Belle’s two sisters, Fière (Angela Paul) and Vanité (Samara Downs) look too much like a couple of certain stepsisters who have stumbled into the wrong ballet.
Rather more interesting are what look like a couple of nods to “The Sleeping Beauty”. The mysterious Woodsman can easily be seen as the ballet’s Lilac Fairy, while the rats in the castle occasionally echo Carabosse’s acolytes.
The ballet is well-paced, helped along by Glen Buhr’s score, which rolls along, full of perfectly listenable to rhythms. It complements the dance well, even if it leaves not a single memorable tune lingering in the head afterwards.