Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet - Beauty and the Beast - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 14 - 16 October 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 16 October 2014

Birmingham Royal Ballet 'Beauty and the Beast' Photo: Bill Cooper

Performance reviewed: 14 October 2014

David Bintley’s choice of stories to choreograph has always shown a bias towards great literature that happens to have been marvellously represented in film. From Hobson’s Choice (1989) to Cyrano (1991, reworked in 2007), and not forgetting Far from the Madding Crowd (1996). His filmic taste has also extended to three popular fairy stories that had previously attracted the Disney treatment: Beauty and the Beast (2003); Cinderella (2010) and Aladdin (2013).

Bintley – the long-standing director of Birmingham Royal Ballet – has apparently been fascinated by the Beauty and the Beast narrative for 30 years: he restaged the work in 2008 and has returned to it, once more, for this season. It appears to be considerably altered since 2003, particularly in the Prologue, which tells the back story of the fox-hunting Prince and his vixen prey. A sympathetic woodsman with magical powers saves the vixen and transforms her into a girl, while turning the Prince into the Beast and his hunting friends into an assortment of wild animals. Bintley’s take on the tale emphasises its ‘Bleak House’ gothic darkness, an effect triumphantly achieved through Philip Prowse’s russet and gilt designs, evocatively enriching the decaying grandeur of the Beast’s castle: the grand armchair that wraps its arms around the sitter; a candelabra that erupts into light; and a clever gate-folding set that moves around to envelope different spaces. Usually, I don’t like over-fussy, perambulating sets but this one worked to a tee! Best of all, I loved the stuffed animatronic birds that magically (and always surprisingly) started to stretch and flap their wings.

The use of birds features markedly in Bintley’s treatment with Tzui-Chao Chou’s Raven having a memorable clutch of small solos. In the principal roles, Elisha Willis was charming, albeit in the slightly under-written role of the demure Belle (Beauty) but the big dramatic journey is delivered by Tyrone Singleton as the Prince/Beast, beginning as an aristo on the far right of the “nasties” and becoming a luscious romantic hero in the Darcy mould. You can actually feel him “melt” in the first main pas de deux with Belle at the end of Act 1 (one of two definitive duets, beautifully articulated in Bintley’s sublime texturing of classical language). Bintley also employs some riveting cascading movement for his small corps de ballet.

The rest of the soloists and character artists delivered their largely comedic roles with élan. As Monsieur Cochon,* Jonathan Payn* shelved any dancerly inhibitions to execute plenty of petit batterie (jumps with beats) wearing a padded waistline and a “piggy” nose; as a suitor, he is unable to choose between Belle’s two shallow and narcissistic sisters, Fière ( Angela Pau*l ) and Vanité ( *Samara Downs ); and Marion Tait had fun as the shrivelled Grandmère, staying in character throughout the curtain calls. Michael O’Hare exercised an authoritative influence in his scenes as Belle’s father, the Merchant, who is rescued from financial disaster when his ships are found safe. One slight niggle was having no sense of perspective in terms of distance between the Merchant’s house (in the town) and the Beast’s castle (in the forest). They seemed to be immediate neighbours.

Mark Jonathan’s lighting contributed impressively to the shadowy gothic feel, with considerable use of pinpointed candlelight effects. Many people feel that current trends are for stage lighting that is just too dark but this is one of those rare occasions when it is called for and Jonathan maintained a good balance between lighting the things that had to be seen and keeping his overall gothic-inspired theme at a consistent level.

The score was especially composed for the piece, back in 2003, by Canadian composer Glenn Buhr. One can tell that there must have been a very close interaction between choreographer and composer, since the music is always cleverly descriptive of the action, in a linear – almost literal – sense. I could close my eyes and more or less know what action the music is describing on the stage, at any point during the piece; but, in the interval, I couldn’t close my eyes and remember the music from the glorious pas de deux I had just seen, and – for me, at least – that is the downside to the score. There are no memorable, or hummable melodies: it washes over you and then it’s gone.

There is a neat precision about a work that comprises two acts of exactly 48 minutes’ apiece. It is not a long ballet but it is certainly a good one and, although considerably different from the Disney film (there is no Gaston, Lumière or Cogsworth for a start) it shares one important credential, which is that it should be enjoyed by young and old alike. I hope that David Bintley and BRB continue to dust it off and restage it as a core ongoing part of the company’s heritage.

Final London performance of Beauty and the Beast, Thursday 16 October. Birmingham Royal Ballet season continues with Shadows of War on Friday 17 & Saturday 18 October

Photo: Birmingham Royal Ballet Beauty and the Beast by Bill Cooper

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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