A real beast of a show - Review of Beauty & the Beast as it roars into Sunderland Empire

Productions don’t come much bigger, or more dazzling, than Disney.

Thursday, 27th January 2022, 11:07 am

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From the huge shimmering sets, transported across the country in 23 trucks, to the booming voice of the beast which reverberates around the Empire and the bulging biceps of Gaston, Beauty & the Beast is a real behemoth of a show.

The Disney blockbuster has roared onto the Sunderland Empire stage for a 4-week run and it’s already bringing in audiences from far and wide.

Last time I saw this musical was on the London stage many moons ago – but this new production, using many of the original creative team, has lost none of its West End sparkle.

Beauty & the Beast is at the Empire until February 19

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Belle may be one of Disney’s most long-standing heroines, but she’s a leading lady that’s been brought into the modern age: one that wears reading glasses, loves learning and has real courage in her convictions.

For press night she was played by Grace Swaby who charms as the no-nonsense girl who gets lost in books and longs for more than her provincial life.

As well as sprinkling some real magic on the stage, what Disney do incredibly well is the art of story-telling and there’s a really believable connection between Belle and her Beast (Alyn Hawke) as their love unfolds before our eyes.

But this is a show about more than a pair of star-crossed lovers. The cursed household objects in the Beast’s palace are a joy to watch with an incredible attention to detail in their costumes, from Cogsworth’s swinging pendulum to Babette’s Marilyn Monroe-esque wiggle of her feathers.

Courtney Stapleton as Belle and Alyn Hawke as the Beast

Lumiere, played with great comic timing and expression by Gavin Lee, literally lit up the stage, never more so than in show-stopper track Be Our Guest which was a visual and aural feast. You almost get out of breath watching the crockery back flip, can can and swirl around the stage in this awe-inspiring number, all 12 minutes of it, which has the toe-tapping elements of the golden age of musicals sprinkled with spectacular modern staging.

Lumiere led this huge, cleverly-choreographed spectacle with wit and style – give him a show of his own!

Meanwhile, Sam Bailey is as warm and loveable as a comforting cup of tea as Mrs Potts and I’m still trying to work out how her floating head Chip (played by Manasseh Mapira) managed to get his body in that tea trolley.

Gaston too was larger than life, played with relish by Tom Senior who was a real commanding presence as he peacocked his way around the stage, flexing his pecs with glee. His Gaston number is another feat of theatre as the ensemble twirl and clink their tankards in the tavern in this raucous ode.

Cogsworth (Nigel Richards), Mrs Potts (Sam Bailey) and Lumiere (Gavin Lee)

Unlike some musicals, this is one where all the numbers are big, not that that takes anything away from the titular track which drew audible gasps from the baby Belles in the audience as the leading lady appeared in her iconic yellow dress.

(On the note of younger theatre-goers, there are some scarier scenes early on with wolves and the roar of the beast meaning it’s a show recommended for children age six and over. You may also want to steer them past the merchandise stalls, if you can, at £50 for a mirror and £30 for a doll.)

With a show this size, so large only a few theatres are big enough backstage to host it, there’s always a risk of a malfunction and just ahead of the transformation scene a glitch led to a 10-minute pause in the show.

The Empire lit purple for Beauty and the Beast

Remarkably, however, it didn’t really affect the pace of the musical which had you swept up in the magic once more as soon as the curtain was raised.

This tale as old as time is one of the biggest shows to be staged at the Empire since it reopened post-lockdown and it’s one that’s a masterpiece of a musical.

*Beauty & the Beast is casting a spell at Sunderland Empire until Saturday, February 19. Tickets here.

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