The Wardrobe Ensemble are going down ever more interesting routes as their rise to the top continues. Perhaps the most interesting element of The Last of the Pelican Daughters, playing at Pleasance Beyond, is how commercial it feels. After their West End run with Education, Education, Education, this is a work that feels like it’s designed to join it.
With its four sisters, all stuck in some form of existential ennui and mourning the death of a recently deceased matriarch it has echoes both of Chekhov and Shelagh Stephenson’s Memory Of Water. Hell, in its delving into the strife of the middle classes it could have landed amid Dominic Cooke’s Royal Court seasons. It’s unlikely this is coincidental; the company have theatrical knowledge built into their DNA.
But by invoking these big hitters it also brings their work into a deeper microscope. Mostly they succeed, there is no doubt the Ensemble can spin a good yarn and this family drama is never any less than cracking entertainment. Some of the ideas are the Ensemble at their best, the way they portray Granny as a skeleton at first feels like a clever one-note joke but it evolves into something beautiful, as we see her as a younger women, floating in joyful ecstasy, a reminder that in all our elders lives a spirit of a young, trouble-free dreamer.
But these moments of heightened theatricality are less at the forefront then you’d expect. Instead its text-heavy, and while each of the ensemble can give texture and depth to it, I also wondered what a different set of performers would bring to the text.
There are strong performances from Sara Lessore as the youngest daughter who finds herself pregnant after returning from her travels in Bali, Kerry Lovell as the eldest daughter desperate to conceive and Tom England as her partner bringing an Ayckbourn ruffled handsomeness to proceedings. Meanwhile, Ben Vardy is a hoot as the American father to be who interjects the families memorial to give a speech about a woman who he has never met.
In tackling the family drama the Wardrobe continues their journey as the bright young things of the independent scene. It’ll be interesting to see the work continue to grow and develop as it heads out on its inevitable UK tour.
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