★★★★★

If I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of songs and references to various musicals in last year’s pantomime at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, this time around it was (almost) all about rock and pop music. Of course, anthems like ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and Bat Out of Hell fall under the canon of musical theatre, and in this production of Beauty and the Beast, subtle but nonetheless noticeable alterations have been made to the lyrics to suit the storyline. Other times, songs have been truncated from the versions of famed chart songs heard on the radio.

But far from depriving the audience of full renderings of songs, this approach demonstrated that some thought had gone into putting this show together. This was not a case of lazily forcing a narrative around a collection of popular tunes; rather, a mixture of spoken word, music and the usual call-and-response interactions with the crowd combined in such a way that resulted in a hugely enjoyable evening, irrespective of one’s familiarity with the songs, or indeed of pantomime itself.

Not for nothing does the musical director, Dan de Cruz, double up as Monsieur Plinky-Plonk: I’d have preferred it if he were called Monsieur Plinky McPlinkface, but audience participation never stretched as far as inviting suggestions for character names. Set in Paris, there is some exposure to faux French accents, but this is not overdone. The show’s narrator, Charlie Cupid (Oliver Lynes), works hard at maintaining audience interest – Lynes’ stage presence is infectious enough that the response to his opening phrase with every entrance is enthusiastically kept up to the end, something not always witnessed at a panto.

One or two songs could, to be blunt, be removed without affecting comprehension of the plot. But even these are an opportunity for the adult cast to assert themselves as so-called ‘triple threats’ – some marvellous actor-musicianship goes on – and for the ‘young company’, comprised, I am reliably informed, of local schoolchildren, to show they can hold their own amongst professional performers. In the second half, during ‘Shut Up and Dance’, many of the younger members of the audience (for ‘younger’, read ‘prepubescent’) joined in without any prior encouragement, making the song’s title more than a little ironic even before the rest of us were invited to rise from our seats and join in (lyrics were supplied).

Being the unromantic and unsentimental type that I am, I initially sided with the aptly-named Spite (Sarah Mahony), who wanted to thwart the talking and singing about love going on. In the end, however, I could hardly have any qualms with good triumphing over evil. Mahony may have momentarily wowed the audience with saxophone-playing skills, but this opening night audience was a discerning one, and swiftly reverted to boos without being prompted.

Now, pantomime wouldn’t be pantomime without a villain, and pantomime wouldn’t be pantomime without a dame. Here, Betty Bonbon (Oliver Beamish) is endearing and loveable. Personally, I thought the chemistry between Cupid and Soufflé (Molly-Grace Cutler) was more convincing than the one between Amorette, ‘beauty’, (Daniella Piper) and Prince Friedrich, ‘beast’ (James Lawrence).

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