Beauty and the Beast – Review – Sheffield Lyceum
By Kirsty Masterman, December 2023
With the festive season well and truly underway, it can only mean one thing, the return of panto. A staple for many on the festive calendar, this year’s offering at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre is Beauty and the Beast, and with its reputation as one of the ‘biggest and best’ in the country (no pressure there then), it’s easy to see why on a cold and wet December night, the crowds have not been deterred.
The Beauty and the Beast story itself is over 250 years old, and there have been many versions told over the years, with the most famous probably being Disney’s 1991 adaptation. However, Paul Hendy, returning to the Lyceum for his 17th year as writer, director and producer, has put a modern take on the tale, making it more relevant, inclusive and refreshing for today’s audience.
Kicking off the show, in a bubbly fashion, is Cupid, played by CBeebies’ Jennie Dale. Setting the scene in true fairytale style and dressed to the nines in sequins and sparkles, she ensures all eyes are on her. It’s not long however, before we meet Belle, played by Bessy Ewa, her brother Phillipe Fillop – yes, you read that correctly – played by comedian and ventriloquist Mark Fulham, and their mother Madame Bellie Fillop – played by Damian Williams, now in his 16th year of putting the ‘Dame’ in Madame. It isn’t until a good ten minutes later we are introduced to Danton, essentially Gaston from the film, and played by none other than Duncan James of boyband Blue fame.
No stranger to panto himself, having starred in seven others before this, Duncan seems at ease with his switch to a more comedic role, bounding about the stage in all his finery. It is from here, the trio become thick as thieves, united in their mission to help Belle release the beast from the curse that has been placed upon him.
The cast have everyone in stitches right from the off, and the pairing of Mark Fulham – ventriloquist and comedian extraordinaire, with Damian Williams, is pure comedy genius, making for laughs galore throughout the performance as Williams puts Fulham’s ventriloquism skills to the test on several occasions. Throw Duncan James into the mix, and it makes for a most entertaining evening of witty banter. I get the feeling, to it’s credit, there is a great deal of ad-libbing going on as the night progresses and the cast become more at ease with the audience.
The funky, modern soundtrack, brilliantly performed and sung by the cast, adds to modernising the performance, and enables the audience to sing along. A particular favourite being, ‘I’m just Ken’, from this year’s blockbuster Barbie film.
Throughout the performance there are many topical references and digs at the local South Yorkshire towns of Doncaster, Rotherham and Barnsley, along with many regional puns, particularly regarding the local football teams, Costa del Woodhouse being a particular audience favourite, and of course, the boyband Blue. This makes for great interactivity with the audience as they let out their jeers and cheers.
The interactivity with the audience is second to none, and without giving too much away, the use of the ‘Ken Cam’ provided many laughs.
With only 13 actors, there’s no danger of anyone lurking in the background, and with some cast members taking on multiple roles, the stage is never left feeling overcrowded, yet through the clever choreography, you feel like you have watched a West End musical with a cast of 100.
There are elements to the production that haven’t been changed though, such as the iconic yellow dress worn by Belle. In fact, the costumes and sets are bright, sparkly and glamorous – on a par with something you’d expect to see in the West End. Belle remains her namesake, which given its French translation of beauty, can’t really be changed and the crockery characters we all know and love. A particular change in character name however, that I liked, was Monsieur TikTok, gaining several laughs with the younger end of the audience.
One notable aspect is that there is no baddy to boo. However, this certainly doesn’t take anything away from the production, it just helps keep it light-hearted.
For someone that isn’t a particular fan of pantomimes, or Disney for that matter, I have to say, I have now been converted. There is a certain honesty about the production, with the perfectly timed comedy and ad-libs. The audience interaction is second to none, keeping the script fresh and unique, which with several performances a day, is no doubt a welcome addition for the cast. On this particular evening, ‘Richard’, a member of the audience became one of the key parts to the storytelling and his ‘willing’ participation certainly added to the joviality of the evening.
Despite the light-heartedness, the message, ‘don’t judge somebody by their looks’ is still very apparent and the writer has incorporated this message into the script effectively.
I can quite honestly say, this is one of the best pantomimes I have been to in a long time, and certainly deserves its reputation as one of the ‘best’ in the country. The script is genuinely funny and it is a truly inclusive show. As I gaze around at the audience and see the faces of everyone lit up – young and old, you can’t help but smile and have your heart filled with love by the end of it. This is escapism at its very best.
In the words of my nine-year-old daughter, ‘it’s face-achingly funny and we have to come back next year’.
‘Beauty and the Beast’ is at Sheffield Lyceum until 7th January
images: Sam Taylor