Beauty and the Beast, at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Somehow you feel the prospect of austerity Britain could almost be bearable as long as we were still allowed to watch Andy Hockley camping it up in a range of Technicolor frocks once a year.
The Belgrade’s inimitable resident Dame – this is his 14th panto on this stage – is inevitably the star once again. But he is by no means the only ingredient to commend this year’s well-stuffed entertainment.
The story of Beauty and the Beast is a bit off panto’s beaten track, its Freudian undertones tending to attract more pretentious treatments. That hasn’t daunted writers Iain Lauchlan and Will Brenton, who for much of the time seem to be running two tenuously-linked shows in parallel, one of them about Beauty and the Beast, the other about slapstick in the Pantoland village of Mincing-on-the-Verge.
These become rather more integrated in the second half, but where the duality adds value is in the contrast between the garishness of the knockabout scenes and the subdued, glowing colours of the Beast’s castle.
Some of the later scenes here are remarkably beautiful (design by Sarah Burton, lighting design by Dave Muir). I saw the show at a morning schools matinee, and when a stone wall magically dissolved for Beauty and the Beast to dance in front of a star-studded night sky, the children in front of me, who had been screaming “behind you!” minutes before, switched seamlessly to arena-style arm-waving.
Charlie Ryan as the hapless Willy Do-It is an excellent foil for Hockley’s blustering comedy and we have two more than usually rewarding villains in the suave and narcissistic Eugene (Andrew Gordon-Watkins) and his near-spherical sidekick Pimple (Kevin McGreevy). Is it just me, or does Eugene bear a passing resemblance to David Cameron?
At two-and-a-half hours this show is sweet but not short – but it’s a lot more fun than the laboured Disney version.
* Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes. Until Jan 9.