The world described by writer-director Theresa Heskins in this tremendous adaptation is one of emotional stasis. Like the last two years of the pandemic, the enchanted palace is locked in a holding pattern. All the Beast can do is ask Bella to marry him. All she can do is refuse. The conversation circles in vain search of resolution: “Dinner … Marry me … No …”
And yet Heskins keeps us gripped. Returning to the original 1740 story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, with touches of Snow White’s mirror, Cinderella’s sisters and Sleeping Beauty’s 100-year sleep, she explores that adolescent hinterland between animal nature and our socialised selves.
Nicholas Richardson’s Beast is head, shoulders and elbows above Rhiannon Skerritt’s Bella, pacing the stage on jumping stilts, fearsome even as he struggles to be fair. She, being no pushover, keeps her principles intact. Even with her thirst for new experiences, she is ever level-headed.
Fascinatingly, we also get the Beast’s backstory. The show’s real blood is not in the anaemic court, realised in silver greys in Lis Evans’s Louis XIV-influenced costumes, but in the all-red goblins led by a meddlesome Danielle Bird. “Wayward but not wicked,” she freezes Polly Lister’s ferocious Warrior Queen into a statue as punishment for her typical human violence. The boy prince is turned into the Beast as collateral damage.
What we get rather less of is Bella’s backstory. We meet her in entrepreneurial mode as she launches a cleaning business, but once she is trapped in the palace, elegantly suggested by Laura Willstead’s superb set, we find out too little of what she has sacrificed to be there. Her dad is an ineffectual offstage voice and, unlike the Disney version, she has no other love interest. The Beast is hardly an attractive proposition, but, hey, what else has she got to do?
If this takes the emotional temperature down a degree or two, it is no less of a sumptuous show. Vigorously acted, inventively staged and ravishingly scored (by James Atherton), it is rich and rewarding. On the way out, I hear someone say she’d like to watch it again. I’d happily join her.