Beauty and the Beast, New Theatre, Cardiff

Panto has been described as “a traditional fairy tale complete with songs, dances, jokes, exaggerated characters and lots of audience participation”. The question is how to keep a genre that dates back to the 16th or 17th century, relevant to today’s tech- and media-savvy younger generation with their short attention spans and constant need for innovation.

We were lucky enough to see the pantomime “Beauty and the Beast” at the New Theatre, Cardiff on the theatre’s 112th Birthday. The New Theatre panto has become such a firm part of the Callaghan family’s Christmas build-up over the last four or five years that the children had clear ideas of what they were expecting from the evening – Megan was expecting a “colourful”, “noisy”, “funny” show with”amazing costumes and sets”. Ten year old Rhydian, who is sports-obsessed, was hoping that Gareth “Alfie” Thomas would make an appearance for the fourth consecutive year, while Nia was looking forward to the return of comedian Mike Doyle who has made the New Theatre panto dame role his own!

Needless to say, the children weren’t disappointed! The production values are always very high – Lisa Riley, as Mrs Potts, made reference to the fact that “you’ve spent 39 quid each on your tickets, you’d better enjoy it”. To be fair, it is obvious where the money is spent – as in previous years the costumes and sets were spectacular with an added treat this year of an animatronic “Kraken” monster, created by Twins FX, which extended over the audience as the climax to the first half.

Presumably much of the budget was also spent on the “stars” salaries. In all honesty, though, it was the home-grown talent, Alfie and Mike Boyle, who stole the show as they have done in previous years. The rapport between these two, as well as between them and the audience, was a pleasure to watch – not least as they failed to stop themselves laughing hysterically during Alfie’s exercise class. There seems little doubt that this pair will be a fixture in the New Theatre panto for a good few years to come!

So far, so similar to previous years. Shoe-horned in were as many 2018 cultural references as the producers could manage – most of the soundtrack of “the Greatest Showman” seemed to make an appearance as did the “Baby Shark” song popularised on social media, jokes at the expense of Newport County AFC and Swansea City and in favour of the Bluebirds (much to Rhydian’s delight!) and a sketch based on the “Alexa” gadget.

What was different to previous years, however, was that the female characters were firmly in charge and the panto was all the better for it! No more wimpy heroines, waiting for a prince to come and rescue them so that they can start their lives, this year the girls had all the best roles. Both Ben Richards, as the Beast and Prince Sebastian, and Danny Bayne, as Clarence Bridge, came across as rather pathetic, preening, unsympathetic characters and in real life Naomi Slights’ feisty Belle would likely have run a mile from either of them! Lisa Riley, as Mrs Potts and Stephanie Webber, as Deadly Nightshade, also deserve a mention for being feisty and fabulous and for firmly outshining the boys.

Panto being panto, though, the climax was the usual spectacular wedding but at least the message of this panto was not to judge on appearances and that to make oneself more attractive one should work on one’s behaviour rather than on one’s looks. A refreshing message, even if somewhat atypical in 2018! Maybe there is something for Generation Z to take from panto after all?!

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