One of the highlights of any child’s Christmas should be a visit to a pantomime.
For many, it’s their first experience of theatre and if you ask any of the stars who take part in the show they’ll all tell you what a privilege it is to introduce youngsters to the stage. As such, they’ll usually give it their all.
That’s exactly what you’ll see when you visit Beauty And The Beast at The Hexagon in Reading.
It’s messier, sloshier and funnier than ever and a real family festive treat.
The show, which runs until January 6, features an incredibly talented cast headed by Nigel Nevinson, Vikki Michelle, Jolyon Dixon and CBeebies megastar Justin Fletcher (aka Mr Tumble).
For the third year running, it’s an Imagine Theatre production and the panto builds on the success of its previous two Hexagon shows – and the successful reuniting of Justin and Jolyon, a double act for our times.
The duo are this year Dame Dorothy Do-It (Jolyon) and her son Willy Do-It (Justin). Both have the audience eating out of their palms through a series of funny routines, simple jokes and messy, sloshy silliness. Both also get the honour of solo entries – both hysterical and both chockful of audience interaction. Both actors get loud cheers when they appear and rightly so.
As this is their third season working together, you can see that their relationship hitting new heights. Effortlessly improvising around each other, they keep the laughs coming thick and fast and adding a sense of danger in that neither of them know quite what each other is going to throw at the other next, particularly in the obligatory slosh scene which has escalated from being a simple custard pie in the face to something very messy indeed, much to the delight of the young audience.
One hopes that the pairing continues in years to come, with local lad Justin – the 21st Century Brian Cant – continuing to enjoy Christmas in his home town. Jolyon should become Reading’s resident dame, spoken of in the same hushed tones as dames par excellence Christopher Biggins, Les Dawson and Rikki Fulton.
Beauty And The Beast has the audience on board right from the very first scenes, quickly getting them to take part in everything from hissing, booing and behind yous.
Dance routines are a joy, the acting first rate and the show moves along at a fair enough pace so that no scenes drag or feel out of place – no mean feat given its two-and-a-half hour runtime.
The Beast’s first appearance is the only part that seems slightly out of sorts. Kept in darkness, we can only see his red eyes: it’s the only really scary moment in the whole show, but also helps sell the idea that the Beast is a horrible piece of work.
The show builds to a thrilling climax of the wedding, with plenty of drama, hi-jinx and laughs along the way.
Everything, from the costumes to the sets are first rate and the band cleverly tie in the musical cues at just the right moment, making it a great show to watch.
If Justin and Jolyon are top drawer entertainment, what about the rest of the cast? As usual, Imagine have done Reading proud.
Vikki Michelle is the Enchantress who doubles as a narrator for the show. While her dresses sparkle and shimmer under the spotlight, it is her beauty and grace that shines the most.
Nigel Nevinson, returning after a year’s gap, stars as Beauty’s father: across the show, you get a real sense that he loves Beauty and would do anything for her. His distraught look as he realises he will lose Beauty to the Beast is heartfelt and moving.
Beauty is Hexagon newcomer Emma Housley and brings a real sense of empathy to the role. She sings beautifully and convinces you that she had fallen in love with the Beast, played by David J Higgins.
Despite the mask that constrains him, David makes a convincing Beast and allows his voice to flesh out the character.
Those familiar with the Disney film may be wondering where Gaston is. Here, he is Eugene and given the right amount of arrogance and charm by Ian Kanuer. His comic foil is Martin Parsons as Pimple, who brings many a laugh across the show.
Dan Westwood plays the Prince that becomes the Beast and is also seen throughout the show as part of the ensemble, bringing high-energy dancing to the stag with Chris Whittaker, Natalie Hassell and Carrie Willis. They really do add to the song and dance numbers across the show.
Also dancing are the panto babes – the Reading-based youngsters who never fail to stop smiling throughout their routines. Highlights include their bat costumes for Beauty and Beast’s romantic dinner, as well the all-singing, all-dancing finale.
Imagine Theatre carefully create their pantos to ensure that they are fun as well as sticking firmly to the traditions of the trade. So it’s a joy to see all the boxes present and correct – corny and topical jokes, lively songs, audience participation and plenty of mess.
It’s the perfect Christmas treat.
Imagine Theatre are already looking ahead to next Christmas, and work has already begun on Jack And The Beanstalk, which will be performed from Saturday, December 7, 2012 to Sunday, January 5, 2013.
For more details, log on to www.readingarts.com or call the box office on (0118) 960 6060.