Since the days when Joan Littlewood resurrected the Theatre Royal at Stratford East after World War II, this theatre has had its own special ethos that has produced such landmark plays as Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow and The Hostage; Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey; and, of course, the famously workshopped production of Oh, What a Lovely War! (which returns again in January 2015).
Current Artistic Director Kerry Michael has remained faithful to the Littlewood tradition of serving the local audience and its specific needs and putting onto the stage shows that reflect East Enders’ lives as well as the ethnic mix of the area. The best theatre is local theatre and this is one of the best in the country.
Specific to all this is a fine tradition of Christmas pantomimes. Every year brilliant utterly professional yet pleasingly raw productions of the standard panto fare is re-imagined. No big West End or TV stars here; but excellent performances all round, a real sense of ensemble and wonderful communication with the audiences are among the hallmarks of a panto at the TRSE, and this year’s Beauty and the Best is no exception. With a cast that includes a range of players from veteran Michael Bertenshaw as the Dame, Aunty Gisele, and relative newcomers Helen Aluko as Belle and Vlach Ashton as Beast, this show is a thorough delight. It has all the best panto traditional jokes, interactions with the audience (“Look behind you!”), and a strong concept that continues a tradition of contemporary reference and making you rethink the old stories. The story in this production is titivated to make it a bit ofShrek (other fairly tale characters such as Pinocchio, Peter Pan and one of the three little pigs pop up), a bit of the Walt Disney film, a bit of the classic Jean Cocteau 1946 film. The costumes and sets by designers Jenny Tiramani and Harriet Barsby are just as witty and captivating as the script, very Brechtian in creating effects that you can see coming and yet that also make you see magic. Ian McGreggor is a fine musical director; and the choreography by Natasha Khamanji was apt, energetic and very strong.
I loved the energy of all the performers and was especially struck by the Peter Pan of Amelia Cavallo who, the programme tells me is a blind performer. That was a shock! As she absails around the set and interacts with the other performers, you would simply never notice. All the cast is memorable, and Antonia Kemi Coker is a superlatively mobile, snakey Witchy while Allyson Ava-Brown is captivating as Prunella. Laurence Aldridge’s Pinocchio has a very mobile proboscis that grows on queue and just about kills the kiddies every time it happens.
The night I went the children in the audience interacted with the stage with unrestrained glee; and clearly the TRSE has a loyal, involved audience. The atmosphere in the theatre is itself a glorious part of the show.
This production doesn’t have the glitz or the gloss of some pantomimes; but it has a heart and a brain, as well as some catchy songs and hilarious lyrics. There are even a couple of double entendres that you really shouldn’t explain to the kids. This show is a real treat. And already they are advertising next year’s TRSE pantomime, Robin Hood, to be written by the team of Trish Cooke and Robert Hyman and directed by Kerry Michael. Frankly, I would book it now as well as going along to see this somewhat iconoclastic and utterly enjoyable Beauty and the Beast.
At the end of the Cocteau film, La Belle et la Bête, Greta Garbo cried out at the screen: “I want my Beast back!” I suppose this was the inspiration for the new ending of this delightful retelling of a famous fairy tale. The TRSE continues to give us a unique blend of innovative productions with sheer, gutsy entertainment at its core and also continues to make theatre history and establish new traditions. Joan Littlewood would be pleased.