THE THEATRE Royal in London’s East End may sit in the shade of the behemoth Westfield shopping centre, but its reputation for staging pantomimes brimful with originality mixed in with the traditional bawdy innuendo and anarchic humour has rightly reached much further afield.
While developers and politicians set about displacing Stratford’s established working-class community, the theatre’s Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful thing. It’s a show which, with warmth and many belly laughs, enfolds the area’s beleaguered families.
This new version by award-winning writer Paul Sirett has a uniquely progressive spirit. The pantomime staples of puppetry, acrobatics and old-time knees-up mixed with contemporary music — here hip-hop — are all present but it’s big on urban relevance and inclusivity too.
One standout moment finds the dame Auntie Gisele (a sparkling Michael Bertenshaw) leading little girls in the audience in the chant: “What do we want? Respect in the workplace!”
Another sees sweetie factory overseer Mr Hardboiled (Laurence Aldridge) propose a gay marriage with his employer Mr Choakum (Ralph Bogard) before agreeing to cohabit and see how it goes, leaving parents in the audience hooting with laughter.
The unorthodox adaptation loosely follows the original, with the castle servants transformed not into talking cups and brooms but characters from other fairytales, including a very acrobatic Peter Pan (Amelia Cavalry), Piggy (Bogard again) and streetwise Baby Bear (Jorell Coiffic-Kamall).
A collision of plots creates lots of joyful mayhem as Beast (Vlach Aston) struggles to find true love and break the curse before his 21st birthday sees him trapped in monster form forever.
Evil nemesis Witchy (Antonia Kemi Coker) is determined to thwart his path to happiness, taking residence in the castle’s enchanted library along with her vile daughter Prunella (Allyson Ava-Brown).
Coker is thunderously superb, prowling the stage in a bright red unitard and snake-like headdress, spitting withering putdowns at the audience. Drawing herself up to her considerable full height, she berates the ugly group before her as the children titter nervously and wriggle in their seats.
No Beauty and the Beast would be complete without a charming Belle and Helen Aluko is all sweetness and light in the role, with a beautiful voice to boot. The production is Aluko’s first pantomime and her London theatre debut but she carries the show with such ease that we are sure to see more of her.
Runs until January 17, box office: stratfordeast.com