Following its highly successful revival last year, Melly Still’s Beasts and Beauties once again takes up residence as the Hampstead’s Christmas show. It’s a most welcome return for this dark and delectable adaptation of a selection of folk and fairytales - as well as a welcome return to theatre of the imagination at a venue whose programming has been reliant upon fact-based material this season. In its new incarnation, Beasts and Beauties has been shorn of two tales: it now comprises six rather than eight pieces, and benefits from the streamlining. Apart from an enjoyably (and appropriately) modish take on “The Emperor’s New Clothes” - which presents the hero as a hilariously strutting and posing fashionista surrounded by suited flunkies - Still and her co-writers (Tim Supple and Carol Ann Duffy) have resisted the temptation to update the stories excessively. Instead, they’ve trusted the content of the tales to resonate with a contemporary audience, and dramatised them through thrillingly theatrical means that blend diverse elements - song, shadow-play, drawing, puppetry and mime - into a cohesive and dynamic whole.
There’s female curiosity and consequent marital terror in the opening “Bluebeard” (which features one sequence so chilling that the small child behind us burst into tears); superb slapstick, suggestive butter-churning and satisfying gender politics in “The Husband Who Was to Mind the House for the Day”; manic anthropomorphising in “Toby and the Wolf”; and a frightening, funny and ultimately very touching take on “Beauty and the Beast.” The most striking and surprising of the six pieces might be “The Juniper Tree,” though, a stunning adaptation of a German tale that boldly touches upon infanticide and cannibalism before reaching its hard-won redemptive close.
The line between narrator and participant is rendered marvellously fluid in Still’s production, and the seven-strong cast - Justin Avoth, Michelle Bonnard, Jake Harders, Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty, Jack Tarlton, Jason Thorpe and Kelly Williams - work brilliantly together, demonstrating superb physical and vocal dexterity as they vividly create characters animal and human (or somewhere in between). Williams is especially effective as she trades the winsomeness of Beauty for the cleaver-wielding frenzy of the stepmother-from-hell in “The Juniper Tree,” unleashing some hilarious, Matrix-esque slow-mo moves as a disgruntled colt along the way, while Tarlton’s scary-then-sympathetic Beast and Thorpe’s dopey dog Toby are among the other stand-out characterisations. But this is the kind of show in which everyone gets their chance to shine, and its inclusive spirit is entirely winning. Still and her collaborators dramatise these tales with all the playfulness, heart and theatrical inventiveness that you could wish for, resulting in what is surely one of the richest and most entertaining family shows to be seen in London this season.
The production runs for 2 hours 15 minutes and is booking until 7 January. Further information at the Hampstead Theatre website.