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Corn Exchange - Beauty and the Beast

30th November to 31st December 2007.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Christmas starts here

Hiss & Boo's fourth panto for The Corn Exchange kicks off the festive season

Beauty and The Beast, at The Corn Exchange, until December 31

A family trip to The Corn Exchange panto has become the traditional way to kick off the festive season in our household; and with production company Hiss & Boo returning to Newbury for the fourth time, we felt pretty safe in the knowledge that this year's show would be something to look forward to.

As soon as we entered The Corn Exchange we were transported to a time long ago and a land not-so far away (like many versions of the tale, including the well-known Disney film, the action here is set in France), thanks to the stunning mural in the foyer, created by artist Sue Rollings and pupils from Winchcombe and Kennet Valley primary schools.

The magic continued onto the stage, with a twinkling set and two hours of high-quality entertainment. While director Cal McCrystal (who bravely stepped out as a last-minute Dame in Dick Whittington in 2006) and composer/lyricist Barb Jungr were back on board, the cast were mainly newcomers although cutie Adam Lea, as Beauty's lovelorn friend Pascal, bares an uncanny resemblance to Corn Exchange panto regular Richard Thomson.

The traditional Beauty And The Beast story is an epic one and, unlike many fairytale heroines, Beauty does not fall in love with her prince in a heartbeat, for obvious reasons. Whittling down the tale to a hectic twenty-four hours does rather speed up the love story, but the touching chemistry between feisty Beauty (Sarah Cahalarn) and the imposing (but not too fearsome) Beast made it as believable as you need a pantomime storyline to be. Anyway, Keith Anthony Higham's magnificent singing voice meant that even at his furriest, the Beast had something rather manly about him.

An inspired addition to the cast were Clare Plested and Adam Brown, best known in these parts as New Greenham Arts' resident comedy theatre duo. As slapstick castle servants Baguette and Croissant, the pair exchanged the buffoonery expected from such roles for comic creepiness, Rocky Horror-style, and a convincing argument that their characters are the true identities of eerie X Factor siblings Same Difference.

Wicked wizard Scaramouche (Nick Smithers), dressed like Robin Hood's Guy of Gisborne and spouted Queen lyrics - something for the grown-ups, along with some sneaky double entendres. Panto dame Monique (Mark Stowey) relentlessly pursued her ailing employer Bertrand (Philip Elvy, playing a very different part from last year's King Rat) until he too gave into a love that was not skindeep (although Stowey did make an unusually feminine dame).

There was a true love for everyone in this story, with Pascal eventually exchanging his devotion to Beauty for a marriage to balletic frog princess Rose (Victoria Hay).

Mention also has to be given to assistant stage managers Ian Street and Juliet Lundholm, who brought great character to their scene-setting and shifting parts as a simpering accordionist and giggling, leggy showgirl; and to the Young Company, who looked like they were having as good a time as the audience.

As I have mentioned in past years, it is a pity that some of the witty lyrics were lost under the live music; and the pace dropped a little in some places, something that will almost certainly pick up during the run. But despite all the love matches the story never became too soppy, and the show was sparky, bright, extremely funny, and entertaining for everyone from beginning to end.


From the Oxford Times.

This production is in the best tradition of true English pantomime and, in that tradition is, of course, set in rural France. It features excellent performances by professional actors, including the exquisitely attired dame, Monique Malmaison (Mark Stowey), and the wounded, lonely Beast (Keith Anthony Higham); and those by the local young performers who bring energy, wit and professionalism to the crowd scenes and the beautifully choreographed dance routines.

The cast also includes the local New Greenham Arts own off-the-wall duo of Clare Plested and Adam Brown as the Beast's staff-cum-henchpeople: Baguette and Croissant. Gaunt and eccentrically attired as a French maid and a cod maitre d', they bring a wacky anarchy to everything they turn their collective hands to.

Excellent too, is the bad wizard Scaramouche (Nick Smithers), attired in glistening greeny black, he oozes arrogance and mal-intent, as, among other evil deeds, he cruelly turns Prince Jacques into the Beast and Princess Rose (Victoria Hay) into the cutest of little green frogs, whom he then enslaves as his pet, Froggie.

The changes of scene are managed very cleverly by the movement of curtain backdrops by a somewhat manic character (Ian Street), who uses each scene change as the opportunity to offer (in vain) to play his accordion, and by a glamorous female assistant (Juliet Lundholm) who coquettishly announces each new scene displaying the information on a hand-held bill board.

And there is a very considerable succession of wonderful scenes: scenes such as the slapstick routine of the unsuccessful loading and unloading suitcases from a barrow; a grand finale worthy of a West End musical, and an absolutely fabulous dining scene where actors, food and crockery whizz manically round the table culminating in a frenzied dance on the table itself.

There is plenty of opportunity for audience participation too, with: the traditional sing along with youngsters from the audience on stage, the chance to boo and hiss the evil Scaramouche and, yes or rather, oui oui, the audience's turn to respond to prompts from the stage in Franglais.

The pantomime comes highly recommended and continues at The Corn Exchange, Newbury, until December 31.