Snow White- Tobacco Factory Theatres ☆☆☆

Snow White Tobacco Factory ©Mark Dawson Photography

A show both international and with Bristol vibes this Snow White is charming even if it grows ever baggier as it goes along.
A Gallic filled Beauty and The Beast. A Baltic tinged Snow White. As the country prepares to go to the polls, in an election mostly driven by Brexit fever, New International Encounters Christmas shows determinedly embrace our European heritage. This is a Snow White bang up to date, with its talks of walls and quotas, veganism and activism, it’s the most Stokes Croft show you’ll see this festive season. Alex Byrne’s production rolls along nicely harking closely to the original Brothers Grimms narrative and propelled by Joey Hickman’s sensational melodic score. If its second half becomes a little baggy and repetitive there is still plenty of charm here, though its a show that may appeal to the adults in the audience more than the children.

Call it the Wicked effect but shows have realised their interest lies mostly in the villain. Stefanie Mueller’s (who pulls double duty as show designer as well) Queen is the central turn of the evening, resembling Helen Mirren in a shimmering black nightdress, she is the fox whose best days are coming to an end. As the magic mirror proclaims Snow White on her seventeenth birthday as the fairest in the land, Mueller unleashes a howl of agony, through blues-inflected song, of a woman who feels she has lost her power through her fading glamour. This villains motive is clear to see, a woman who feels she is losing her agency through every passing year. If she is going to milk every song, every line, it is because she fears to draw breath in case the world moves on again in the silence.
As Snow White, Jodie Davey doesn’t push too much into cloying Disney princess. Her physicality and facial expressions convey gawky teenage awkwardness softening into a young women’s beauty. Abayomi Oniyide gives the hunter who doesn’t stop looking for his childhood friend some genuine heart.
There are no dwarves here, simply a numerical confused commune, who have turned their forest-dwelling, using the Tobacco Factory pillars and some ragged rugs into something of a festival gathering. If the second-half runs out of steam (turns out Snow White has more lives then Jason Voorhees) Rina Vergano’s and Mike Tweddle’s script is always good-natured enough to keep its audience on side.
There is nothing as crowd-pleasing here as the first dates scene from Beauty and The Beast but it provides a constant stream of light chuckles and playful family entertainment. A show that feels both very Bristol and international in the same tonic. A soothing balm in our troubled times.

Beauty and The Beast plays at Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 19 January 2020

Beauty And The Beast- TF Theatres ☆☆☆☆

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In a year when the live action movie musical of this tale sits atop the box office charts its reassuring to find it can do just as well without Alan Menken’s musical score and Emma Watson’s auto-tuned vocals. New International Encounter’s production, in a co-production with Tobacco Factory Theatres this Christmas after a successful run with other co-producer Cambridge Junction last year, may lack the budget and the sterling show tunes of the film, but more than makes up for it in heart and originality. If Christmas shows are measured by the smile it puts on our faces and the gales of laughter elicited from the younger ones then this is a stone iron smash.

Low on budget it may be but director Alex Byrne and his five strong actor-musician cast make virtue out of necessity. They manage to turn the intimate space of the Tobacco Factory into the fully realised world imagined by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original tale- of dilapidated cottages in the woods and gothic grand castles. Destined to remain in bestial form until someone loves him, having been cursed by an old crone centuries before, this beast, played by Martin Bonger, prowls the space with a restless physicality, centuries of loneliness and self-hatred about his physical appearance having turned him feral. It’s only when Sara Lessore’s Beauty enters the castle that the soul underneath is reinvigorated, the dining scene courtship between the two, as the Beast learns to be human again is both hilarious and touching, like the best episodes of First Dates where the outcome hangs in the balance.

The whole enterprise is so touching and pure that it’s impossible not to be swept up in its charm. Its populist family entertainment, full of the magic of rough and ready storytelling, with Gallic infused folk music, pantomime villains and love conquers all mentality. All five performers are terrific; Bonger is cultured and beastly, a man whose lost his identity when he sees the fur and the horns in the mirror, while Lessore is winningly winsome and full of self-agency as Isabella whose kindness and purity of soul helps spark life back into the beast. Playing goodness on stage is tricky, finding a naturalism while doing it even more so. Yet when she laughs at the beast’s stand-up routine, or as the realisation dawns that she loves her bearish host, there is truth in her dawning reactions. She may be the best Christmas heroine I’ve seen.

There are a pair of terrific ugly sisters from Elliot Davis and Samantha Sutherland whose ‘Daddy’ refrains when things don’t go their way (often), are honed like a nuclear weapon mapped to inflict maximum damaged while Gregory Hall and Benjamin Tolley also provide strong support. The singing is a dream, audience interaction pitched just about right. In recent years TF have held the advantage of the Christmas shows in the region over their more glitzy and glamorous rivals and Beauty and The Beast sets out a strong marker for 2017. Bristol Old Vic-over to you