Review: Beasts and Beauties

Beasts and Beauties Hampstead Theatre Swiss Cottage 4/5 stars

Since the dawn of time, stories have helped us make sense of the world’s joys and horrors. In reworking eight European fairy tales, a multi-talented ensemble brings home the elemental power of these archetypal stories of vanity, love, jealousy and evil.

Director and adapter Melly Still distils each tale to its essence and dramatises it with concise, versatile strokes that leave you gasping with laughter or shuddering with horror.

Under-eights might baulk at the opening tale of serial wife murderer Bluebeard and his petrified bride, as she peeks into a forbidden chamber containing the caged bodies of his bloodied victims.

But from Gothic horror, we are plunged into the slapstick hilarity of the incompetent husband, who swaps roles with his wife and spectacularly fails at multi-tasking. He chokes the pig when it runs amok, screams at the baby and ends up with his head in the porridge.

Later on, The Emperor’s New Clothes provoked near hysteria from the audience of teenage girls, as strategically placed flags and flowers hid the ruler’s crown jewels, though not his bare bum.

No sooner had we calmed down than we were in tears at Beauty And The Beast. Unlike the Disney version, Jack Tarlton’s monster is properly grotesque, with fangs, claws, dried blood and greased skin. But it’s genuinely moving when the spell is lifted, he is purified with (real) water and kisses his love.

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The time, place and mood of each story are economically located through song, sound effects, costume, minimal props and clever lighting.

The horrific Germanic tale of The Juniper Tree deploys a backlit screen to show the monstrous stepmother mincing up her hated stepson before serving him to his father. But just as it becomes unbearable, it turns into a redemptive tale of magical revenge and resurrection, accompanied by a beautiful song.

Animals are convincingly drawn through physical expression and select features; a spiky wig, baggy clothes and floppy demeanour turn Jason Thorpe into poor abused Toby the dog. Earlier, donning a pair of false lashes, a marigold glove, a large tweed skirt and a lumbering gait, he made a credible cow.

At the end, the actors offer the audience a feast of imaginary food. It’s a tribute to the previous two-plus hours that we willingly join in. Take children by all means, but any age group would enjoy this.

Until December 31.