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Review of Beauty and the Beast at Rhodes Arts Complex

By Paul Winspear

Audiences heading for their annual pantomime fix in Bishop’s Stortford – as well as those who have broken the spell and are experiencing panto for the first time – are enjoying a monstrously good show.

Phoenix Theatre Arts’ Beauty and the Beast at Rhodes Arts Complex opened on Saturday December 8 and performances continue through the Christmas and New Year holidays until January 5.

It is produced and directed by Phil Dale, who co-wrote it with Rhodes technical assistant Conor O’Sullivan. Dale has been producing panto at Rhodes since 2010, and in that time he has hit upon a successful formula that ticks the panto box of appealing to all members of the family. Beauty and the Beast is no different.

The production is built on a solid foundation of a visually appealing set, designed once again by Malvern Hostick, which invites the audience to sit back and enjoy the ride.

All the necessary ingredients of the traditional panto cake are there: colourful and occasionally stunning costumes, catchy songs (my favourite was Sweet Belle of Mine, a take on Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline), contemporary dance routines, audience interaction, corny jokes, a bit of slapstick and a dash of adult humour.

Not for the first time, Dale’s panto is enhanced by technology, most notably in the video opening, which sets the scene, the effect employed for the dying rose and the use of mobile phone to include a member of the audience in the online dating routine, which worked very well.

A new element for this year’s Rhodes panto is the use of magic in the form of magician Tom Brace, a former member of the Phoenix Theatre School who is currently touring his Edinburgh Festival fringe magic show. He plays Merlin the wizard, the sidekick ‘son’ of Dale’s panto dame, Madame Fanny Fromage (adult humour, remember?).

Of course, a show can only be as good as its cast, and Beauty and the Beast benefits from a good line-up, most notably dance and musical theatre academy graduate Maisie Humphreys, who has come a long way since her Rhodes panto debut in 2005 when, as a nine-year-old girl, she played a dwarf in Snow White.

Maisie is excellent in all aspects as the feisty and independent young Belle, who yearns for something different.

What she does not yearn for is her pursuer, Gaston, who runs the karaoke bar in the village. Of course, he is no match for Belle, but Buck Braithwaite is on a par with Maisie as the egotistical, narcissistic and arrogant Gaston with a performance full of energy and movement that owes a small debt to Rik Mayall’s Flashheart in Blackadder.

Paul Daly cuts an imposing figure as the Beast, and Abbie Middleton – who played the title role in last year’s Rhodes panto, Snow White – shows her versatility as Gaston’s sidekick and lovestruck companion, LeFou.

The whole cast and crew are to be commended on a show that is far more beauty than it is beast.

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