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Review: Beauty and the Beast at Unity Theatre ****

“Be our guest,” Belle trills towards the end of the Unity’s new Christmas show, before being told unceremoniously: “Wrong version!”

And if you’re expecting Disney-fied dancing candlesticks, chipped cups and Emma Thompson channelling her best teapot tones, you might be (momentarily) disappointed – because this production in collaboration with Action Transport Theatre and DaDaFest is a very different beast.

Unity Christmas show regulars will be in clover however, with all the theatre’s trademark festive motifs present and correct.

There’s a strong four-strong cast of disparate characters who together have a lovely, easy rapport; a minimal and versatile set and costumes by a LIPA design student – this year Lena Kennard; and an utterly enchanting original score by composer Patrick Dineen.

Imagination and physical storytelling are the order of the day in what is a sensitive and quietly charming production – so quiet that the rustling of snacks and sweets in the intimate auditorium can easily break its magic spell.

The action seamlessly merges speaking, signing and miming, underscored by Dineen’s troubling incidental music and punctuated with his clever songs which paint a vivid picture – “the years pile up like unwashed plates” being one particularly evocative line.

When Belle’s father (Stephen Collins) happens upon a mysterious deserted house and plucks a red rose from a bush in the garden, it’s his daughter (Rose-Marie Christian) who must pay the price.

Locked in a turret room and only allowed out for three square meals a day, prepared by Simone Lewis’ long-suffering major domo/valet (a character as close to Cogsworth as this version comes), Belle becomes aware of a shadowy figure hovering in the background.

But this ‘beast’ (Edward Day) is less fierce monster and more a petulant and lonely man-child who is simply desperate for a friend to knock around with.

Like all good festive fairytales, it’s no spoiler to hint at a happy ending. But not necessarily the exact happily ever after of other, more syrupy, versions.

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