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Oxford Playhouse - Beauty and the Beast

5th December 2014 to 18th January 2015.

Review from The Guardian.

Christmas is coming, and in Oxford that means one thing: a pantomime from Peter Duncan – yes, the former Blue Peter presenter. He’s staged every Oxford Playhouse pantomime since 2006, so he knows what he’s doing. This year’s effort is the fairytale with more than a passing resemblance to Phantom of the Opera – ideal material for a self-conscious rendering, complete with Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish musical numbers and the Beast rising from beneath the stage to the sound of an organ.

The story is a stop-start affair. Master of ceremonies is the avuncular Fairy Sponge (whose moniker is presumably a tip of the tiara to The Great British Bake Off), played with cheery verve by Helena Raeburn; much of her repartee is devoted to scrapping with a witch-like giant eyeball perched high on the side of the stage. When the plot moves on, we’re introduced to Beauty (Sammy Andrews, no doubt receiving a massive ego boost every time she goes on stage), and her PA (Alan Vicary, who doubles as the bandage-swathed Beast).

Events are waylaid by the comedy stylings of Leon Craig, glorying in a fat suit, massive wigs and the name Dame Jolena Jollychops, and standup comic Dave Bibby, playing her thick son Jolly Jack. Craig, whose dame is a sort of ghostly housekeeper in the Beast’s castle, keeps things motoring with plenty of drag-act badinage with the audience – he picks mercilessly on a follically challenged spectator. Bibby has a few monologues in among the fairytale transformations, and inspires most of the oh-no-you’re-not screeching from the audience.

There are lots of opportunities for my four-year-old, Lucy, to manically wave her glowing windmill-on-a-stick (a snip at £4.50 in in the foyer beforehand), and, like every other kid in the place, she loudly vents her adoration for Tumbletoes, Beauty’s cutiepie gymnastic dog (played by the fantastically flexible Kate McWilliam).

Pantomimes are the trailblazers for kidult entertainment; like the wave of post-Pixar kiddie animated films, they may err on the side of trying a bit too hard to please the grown-ups. Aside from the witch’s laser-fuelled cackling (which proves slightly too scary for Lucy), this one gets the balance just right.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

A dream beast

Ex-Blue Peter presenter directs his ninth Oxford panto

Beauty and the Beast, at Oxford Playhouse, until January 18

Peter Duncan's ninth pantomime at the Oxford Playhouse is a new version of Beauty and the Beast in which he takes elements of the medieval versions and twists them for a 21st-century audience.

If there is a major difference between this performance and those of previous years, it appears the front of house team have been much more successful in selling glowing magic wands to the children as the auditorium was awash with bright lights waving at the cast.

Beauty (Sammy Andrews) lives in a family with familiar fairy tale problems. She has no mother, her father (Volga Boatman-singing Alan Vicary who doubles in a psychologically interesting way as the Beast) loses his fortune and has to relocate the family. Beauty's sister is unkind to her, most notably because she has a boyfriend and Beauty does not.

Duncan does not dwell much on the Beast's back history: we know what the mistress of ceremonies, Fairy Sponge (Helena Raeburn), tells us about a curse on the Beast that can be lifted if someone loves him truly. The Beast is attired as a cross between a ragtag pirate and a mummy, living alone in a castle. His original self, Prince George (Michael Pickering) lives 100 years apart and appears to Beauty in her night-time dreams. Pickering is blessed with a lovely voice and whenever he sings, the production soars.

The routines are fun - the Bollywood number Jai Ho was an unusual surprise while everyone must have expected the joyful number based on Disney's Frozen.

The audience's favourite character is Beauty's floppy-eared dog Tumbletoes (acrobat Kate McWilliam), especially in the aerial scene, where she performs a clever rope trick.

The unexpected was fun when youthful jokemeister Jolly Jack (Dave Bibby) brought some children onto the stage who were asked what they wanted to be when grown up.

They said professional fencer and French polisher, stumping Jack for a moment. The Dame (Leon Craig) is naturally funny but some of his ad libs were a bit disturbing.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast is an entertaining show that gets the audience dancing.


There are reviews from The Stage ("an eye-popping extravaganza wrapped around an average package" - 3 stars), the British Theatre Guide ("although at times confusing, this Beauty and the Beast boasts a solid cast bursting with talent") and the Oxford Times ("comical, colourful and brimming with feelgood fun").