Beauty and the Beast

Date 21st January 2016
Society Leighton Buzzard Drama Group
Venue The Library Theatre, Leighton Buzzard
Type of Production Pantomime
Director Kim Aguilar
Musical Director Paul Daggett
Choreographer Rachel Long


Author: Richard Fitt

The thing about pantomimes, our uniquely British form of entertainment is exactly that, they're entertainment, pure and simple. They are never going to trouble the ‘Olivier’ awards for acting or script writing, so the only way to judge them is by their enjoyment factor and Leighton Buzzard Drama Group seemed to have taken the patent out on that. Surrounded as they are by several major towns within spitting distance, with at least 4 professional theatres offering ‘celeb’ studded pantomimes at the same time of year, it is remarkable that this group can run one for 3 weeks with a total of 15 performances and sell out just about every one of them. That must be the envy of most groups and deserves an award in its own right. So how on earth do they do it?

First of all, they appear to have a very efficient production team with a lot of imagination and an eye for detail. The first thing you notice is the very elaborate and colourful set design by Mike Ward and his team. The backcloths (although no doubt hired in), especially the Village of Franglais-sur-Mer, were particularly spectacular and the cut away mid-tab ones really added depth and colour to the set. Not to mention the very clever sliding castle gates and wall which neatly and very smoothly disappeared, or rather glided into the wings to reveal the castle’s fabulous interior. Oh, and I nearly forgot the pink beauty parlour, certainly worth a colourful mention, which should come with a health warning! -  So, scene set, audience transported from Library Theatre to a brightly colourful fairy-tale land. Brilliant start!

Second major rule in the game of taking on professional pantomimes...have an excellent house band to play a good mixture of traditional and contemporary pop songs! Enter Musical Director Paul Daggett who certainly knows how to put one of those together and they entertained us royally from overture to finale, even adding their own musical ad libs in the appropriate places. - Audience now warmed up and raring to participate.

Rule number three...find a competent choreographer who can take a bunch of actors  with two left feet and make them perform just outside their comfort zones whilst remembering to keep a smile on their faces. Believe me I know; I was married to a professional choreographer for 15 years! Very, very well done by Rachel Long, a recently qualified professional choreographer herself. Lots of imagination and even a couple of dance moves I’ve not seen before, particularly during the numbers accompanying the songs by Jo Taylor as Belladonna. Loved it! (Hmm? Pity Rachel is moving on!) - Audience now fully engaged and realising this group are pretty good at this game!

Rule number four...employ a good wardrobe department! Now surprisingly there is no formal credit in the programme for costumes, just a footnote giving thanks to Ann Kempster, Ann Matthews and Sheena Ward for their ‘help’. Well ladies, I don’t quite follow LBDG’s organisational thinking, but a wonderful job, however it was done. Some of the costumes, particularly Belladonna’s colour coordinated and Flora’s contrasting dresses were absolutely top drawer. – Audience’s eyes now feasting on a magical array of the bizarre and the dandy!

Rule five... add top quality sound and lighting. Well apart from one microphone failure, which can happen to the best and was quickly swapped, this was pretty much flawless. The sound by Tom Davies was crystal clear and the lighting by Dave Miles was particularly well thought out, especially with the down lighting of the two fairies. - Very professional!

You would think that the next thing you need is a good script. Apparently not so, this one by Alan P Frayn, like so many of them, is, to misquote a royal personage, pretty ‘naff.’ Admittedly it had the basic plot and all the correct ingredients, clever characters and some original ideas, but making some of the lines believable was cringe making at times and I mean over and above the cringe level expected of pantomime. The scene in the woods where the prince is transformed into The Beast and which is, after all, the crux of the story was pretty weak and deprived Lauren Waters aka Prince Danton of what should have been a very powerful scene and stage time! No, the trick is to have a director and cast who know what to do with it and how to expand it to maximum effect. Kim Aguilar, modestly told me it was her first attempt at directing a pantomime. Hmmm? I think she may be doing this again a few times after this effort, she has a definite knack of getting the best out of her actors and a mediocre script. A few schoolboy errors such as the actors all standing in straight lines on quite a few occasions, but the pace, the delivery and the interaction with the audience was top notch. – Pure entertainment!

Finally, you need some actors who all embrace the script and play their parts with enthusiasm and aplomb. – No problem here!

My stand out performance of this show has to be Jo Taylor as ‘Belladonna.’ Admittedly it’s ‘the’ dream role as the baddie and it would have been a criminal offence if she hadn’t grabbed it with both hands. That said, she has natural stage presence and the ability to interact with the audience and quickly grab any mishap to her own advantage. She had, for example, the audience eating out of her hand and knew exactly how to get an impromptu laugh out of the stage overwhelmed by an over enthusiastic smoke machine.

Emma Stone was suitably cute and demure as good fairy ‘Flora’ and a great foil to Taylor’s ‘Belladonna.’ Nice contrast.

Our leading lady Gemma Aguilar as ‘Belle’ has a beautiful singing voice, great stage presence and was well cast. I would like to see her in a straight role, as she does look to have a considerable amount of talent.

Tony White as the Dame, 'Madam Fifi', perfectly filled the role of holding the show together with his excellent rapport with the audience.  Louis Cross as the camp ‘Marcel’ added that ‘je ne c’est quoi,’ which kept you smiling and poor old ‘Alphonse’ (Andy Ferguson) was the much put upon father of the three daughters. John Stone, as a well disguised ‘Beast’, revealed his true potential when he took on the wonderful Ed Sheeran number 'Thinking Out Loud' (with adapted words). Nice voice Sir!

The two ‘Uglies’, unusually played by two ladies, Emma Cooke (Ermengarde) and Lainy Ward (Esmeralda) kept us laughing in all the right places with excellent comic timing. And two other ladies, but playing male roles, also deserve a special mention, Sian Tracy as the cheeky ‘Jacques’ and Hannah Rourke as the vain ‘Gustave.’ The expression on Hannah’s face in the vanity mirror scene had me in stitches. Again, sublime comic timing.

Well done also to Lauren Massey (Monique) epitomising a 'TOWIE' girl, Lauren Waters (Prince Danton), Kay Ratcliffe (Madam Le Fou) – excellent, every one of you.

Final rule in this game - you send the audience away with a smile from the very welcoming front of house team and a copy of a professionally produced ‘West End’ quality programme.

Job jobbed!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you take on the surrounding towns and their professional pantomimes! If you want to see a master class in this, next year go and see Leighton Buzzard Drama Group do theirs.