Beauty and the Beast review: A dazzling spectacle at the Grand Opera House

Plus: The Three Musketeers ★★★★☆ Peter Pan ★★★☆☆ and Aladdin ★★★★☆

Beauty and the Beast: Georgia Lennon and Ben Richards make a credible and touching pairing

Beauty and the Beast: Georgia Lennon and Ben Richards make a credible and touching pairing

 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Grand Opera House, Belfast
★★★☆☆
It’s once-upon-a-time season in Belfast, and the big Christmas bash at the Grand Opera House is upon us. Its predictable, high-octane format is a dazzling visual and musical spectacle, with lavish sets, costumes and special effects, plus a sprinkling of television and cabaret celebs.

Leading the cast of Beauty and the Beast is Belfast’s favourite dame, May McFettridge, here clocking up her 30th Opera House panto in the role of Mrs Potty, housekeeper to Prince Sebastian. Over the years the voice has become more gravelly, the accent thicker and more impenetrable. The gags, however, have changed little. Audience members eagerly await a barrage of insults along the lines of “Where you from, big man?” “Poleglass.” “Catholic!”

The fairy tale of the ugly beast and the beautiful girl who is captivated by his inner goodness, which dates back to 1740, carries an enduring moral message. It takes hold in a head-turning opening scene where, on the huge darkened stage, a handsome but arrogant prince (Ben Richards) rejects a ragged old beggar woman. Instantly, she transforms him into a fearsome-looking creature before rising high into the air as a shimmering enchantress (Joanna O’Hare), whose sweet voice of reason will cast an air of calm over proceedings.

To the noisy delight of their army of fans, May McFettridge and Paddy Jenkins fluff their lines, fall over each other, get caught in doors and make things up as they go along

The action switches to a sunny town square, where warm-hearted Belle (engagingly played by Georgia Lennon, a newcomer) juggles the leering affections of Flash Harry (Danny Bayne) and the antics of her batty inventor father, Paddy (Paddy Jenkins), and his partner-in-crime, Mrs Potty. On Belle’s birthday the pair set off at speed for the castle gardens, in search of the perfect rose. Into their midst steps the court magician, Magic Mandy, whose role was wiped away by the enchantress’s curse. With her character’s powers removed, Mandy Muden has her work cut out in trying to connect with a less-than-responsive audience.

The second act largely confines itself to the echoing interior of the castle, where the unlikely love story falteringly unfolds. Lennon and Richards make a credible and touching pairing as they explore the theme of what constitutes true beauty. In contrast – and to the noisy delight of their army of fans – McFettridge and Jenkins fluff their lines, fall over each other, get caught in doors and make things up as they go along. – Jane Coyle

Runs at the Grand Opera House until January 12th, 2020

Christmas pantomime: The Three Musketeers, at the Helix in Dublin
Christmas pantomime: The Three Musketeers, at the Helix in Dublin

THE THREE MUSKETEERS

The Helix, Dublin
★★★★☆
The setting for Claire Tighe and Karl Harpur’s millennial version of The Three Musketeers is Merryville, Fairytaleland, 400 years after Dumas père’s original tale played out, when the descendants of Athos, Porthos and Aramis embark on a three-part quest.

First they must find each other, then they must form their own band of modern musketeers, and, finally, they must find the stone of destiny and unseat the dastardly Lord Butface (Paul Byrom).

There is serious narrative at work in Tighe and Harpur’s script, with nods to Indiana Jones and The Lord of the Rings along the way. They add some real-life characters to the mix, with Maria Bailey, the Fine Gael TD, and Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, playing active roles in the plot, as well as the humour. There is also a cute, complying dog, and even some dragons.

Despite the thrilling storyline and gender-bending twist, this version of The Three Musketeers makes sure it doesn’t deviate too far from the traditional formula

Oh, and did I mention that one of the musketeers is a woman? She is Daria, played with verve by Orla Jennings, a thoroughly modern role model who is determined to prove that what you dream of is within your reach.

Despite the thrilling storyline and gender-bending twist, Tighe and Harpur make sure they don’t deviate too far from the traditional formula. Their panto has a villain (Lord Butface, who has mad, mobile eyebrows and a deep baritone), a sidekick too simple to be of any evil use (the wide-eyed, knock-kneed Aidan Mannion) and a dame (Chris Coroon, in serious fancy dress).

There are lots of contemporary pop numbers, too, including Tones and I’s Dance Monkey, which Buddy (Colin Hughes) exploits for mass audience participation. Finally, there is a happy ending. That it comes without the promise or fulfilment of romance makes it even more satisfying. – Sara Keating

Runs at the Helix theatre, at Dublin City University, until January 19th

Peter Pan, at Cork Opera House. Photograph: John Allen
Peter Pan, at Cork Opera House. Photograph: John Allen

PETER PAN

Cork Opera House
★★★☆☆
The opportunities for theatrical extravaganza offered by the romance of Peter Pan are gleefully seized by the creative team staging this production of JM Barrie’s psychologically provocative story.

So many possibilities of licence have been exploited since its first stage appearance, in 1904, that this version’s writers, Trevor Ryan and Frank Mackey, have safely followed the contemporary trend of explosive magic and scattergun narrative.

Cork Opera House has the facilities and the crew to float Peter Pan and Wendy, wings and wires all invisible, high above the imported set. They also float Mackey’s Nanny Nellie in a crinoline so buoyant as to suggest a hot-air balloon insecurely tied to its basket.

The energetic cast and chorus unite in a random riot of fun as Wendy, Michael and John Darling are flown off to Neverland

The production’s lighting designer, Drew McCarthy, keeps to the discipline of stage movement but also sweeps his pulsating lights around the auditorium, while its sound designers, Colm Hinchion and Peter Crudge, match the lighting and the sometimes surprising plot turns with an array of effects rivalling the contributions of the musical director, Ronan Holohan, and challenging the brave singing.

The energetic cast and chorus unite in a random riot of fun as Wendy, Michael and John Darling are flown off to Neverland to live, however briefly, with Peter Pan (Scott Hayward), the Lost Boys and Michael Grennell’s revengeful Captain Hook, a character who can walk off his ship apparently straight into the ocean.

Other directorial slippages include the almost non-appearance of the ticking crocodile that does for Hook. With competitive screaming in his charge, Sam Lupton, as Mr Smee, provides the requisite number of farts, bums and puns for a script that nonetheless offers a credible Peter as the boy who won’t grow up and Phoebe Dipple’s Wendy as the girl who can’t grow down. – Mary Leland

Runs at Cork Opera House until Sunday, January 19th

Gleefully knowing performances: Aladdin, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin
Gleefully knowing performances: Aladdin, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin

ALADDIN

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
★★★★☆
Aladdin is the source of inspiration for Daryn Crosbie’s new pantomime, but he layers many versions of the story upon each other to create a story that seems fresher than the Disneyfied poster might suggest.

With minimal contemporary references – Brexit, Maria Bailey and social-media trends get a little nod – the production gets straight to the drama and is happy to stay in the heightened realm of fairy tale.

If the expected magic seems a little on the low-key side in the first half, it’s perhaps only because Crosbie wants full appreciation for the special effects in the second, when, using the wizardry of the Gaiety’s lighting crew and a series of layered digital projections, the audience join Aladdin and Jasmine on a spectacular ride over the city of Agrabah.

Performances in general are gleefully knowing, and even those who play it straight can’t resist grinning through it all

There are 24 musical numbers in this pantomime, plus what must be more than 100 musical references in the score: contemporary and classic pop, new and old musicals, even a nod to Joe Dolan. Its musical director, Peter Beckett, manages to sculpt them into a cohesive score, although some of the songs are sung at such a pace that the lyrics – rewritten by Crosbie for situational effect – are difficult to decipher.

Performances in general are gleefully knowing, with Joe Conlon’s corpsing Widow Twanky and Nicholas Grennell’s Soviet-inflected Abanazer providing the audience with the opportunity to be vocal in their preference for the goodies over the “bad guys” (with thanks to Billie Eilish for the anthem of villainy).

But even those who play it straight, such as Julian Capoeli as the hunky hero Aladdin, Suzie Seweify as the feisty fearless Princess Jasmine, who resists the traditional happy ending, and Norman Payne as an R&B-rocking, rhyme-rapping Genie – can’t resist grinning through it all. – Sara Keating

Runs at the Gaiety Theatre until Sunday, January 19th

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