Written by Emma Beatty
I’m sitting in Starbucks on Guildhall walk across the road from the New Theatre Royal, chatting to Scott Ramsay, its CEO and artistic director. He’s clearly very excited about this latest new Christmas show—written by him, no less. It’s Beauty & the Beast and sounds spectacular. All set in and around Portsmouth and full of local references. It opens on 14 December and runs to New Year’s Eve.
By coincidence , Beauty and the Beast is suddenly popular again. Emma Watson has just done the live-action remake of the Disney cartoon, and Primark is full of Beauty & the Beast homeware (duvets, mugs), but I digress…
Ramsay chose Beauty and the Beast because of its theatre heritage (it was last played at the New Theatre Royal sixty years ago in 1957). “This is not a straightforward panto, but a big family musical extravaganza – it’s going to be beautiful, spectacular, magical and fun, with big numbers, big routines and big set pieces”. He enthuses. “What’s it like?”, I ask. “not as dark as Phantom of the Opera, maybe even a bit zany, like Spamalot – full of energy and fun”.
Ramsay’s version of the classic tale is influenced by the core story, but is transposed to Portsmouth, the Forest of Bere, and Rowlands Castle in the early 1800s. A beautiful girl falls into penury after her father’s ship founders at sea, and by twists of fate she ends up in an enchanted castle with the mysterious beast.
In modern terms, it’s a slightly difficult, dark story – a romance between a captive woman and the monster she at first believes might attack her, but underneath the beast is a noble-hearted hero.
There may tears at the beast’s final death scene (before he’s brought back to life). Along the way, there’s an evil fairy, Ulrika; a good spirit Titania; and a baby Charles Dickens – a nod to Portsmouth’s literary history.
Some 140 costumes have been sewn up ready for the 30-something cast – with a cast of musical theatre professionals augmented with some special appearances by local children from the Giselle Academy of Dance and Theatre Arts.
The sets are rich and “beautiful” evocations of the elaborate and atmospheric Victorian-era stagings – a bustling dockyard scene at Camber dock for the opening, a magical blue and purple forest on the way to the enchanted castle that glitters in gold, with a ‘breathtaking’ terrace scene looking out over the Solent.
Ramsay was appointed to the newly revamped theatre, earlier this year. In that time, he’s attracted increased investment of £250,000 per year from Arts Council England – one of the biggest increases nationally.
The monies will help propel the theatre into its next new phase, allowing it to create and commission new work – for the first time in many years. He passionately wants to bring new audiences into the historic old theatre that’s been in Guildhall Walk since 1854.
And what for next year? Ramsay is already working on a new production of Peter Pan, moving forward a century from the Victorian to the Edwardian era. It sounds magical, but I can’t wait to see Beauty first.