Alex Byrne on retelling Beauty and the Beast at the Cambridge Junction
While panto season will be in full flow elsewhere, The Junction is offering a brand new retelling of Beauty and the Beast.
The classic French fairy-tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was first published in 1740.
Released 25 years ago, Disney’s animated take on the story – with its subsequent stage and upcoming live film adaptation starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens – is probably the version with which the British public at large most closely identify. That said, there are a number of different aspects to this particular play that make seeing it worthwhile.
For a start, it sticks to the original story more than the Disney version. The script is also essentially being created by the team as they go along and there are original songs included. Though it is a family Christmas show, it’s definitely not a pantomime, as director Alex Byrne of New International Encounter (the Junction-based theatre company behind the play, who also have an office in Oslo, Norway) was keen to stress:
“It’s an alternative to classic panto,” he said. “It is a big, fun knockabout family show, but it doesn’t have a dame and some of those things that panto does – though it is a piece that says: ‘We know you’re there as an audience, we’ll play with you, you’re invited to take part in imagining this show’.
“It’s an actor/musician show, so the actors play as a little band, with a cello, a double bass, accordion, flute, clarinet, ukuleles and guitars, so there’s a whole musical texture to it.”
He added: “We’re using a devising process, so rather than start with somebody’s script, we’re developing the script as we go. We work through telling the story, finding out how to tell it. We work a lot with music, making atmospheres and songs and telling the story – sometimes through song and sometimes literally just telling it to the audience.
“It will be about 90 minutes long, with an interval. It’s trying to be a show that could be great fun for kids, but it should also be fun for adults and for everybody, really.”
Byrne continued: “It’s taken about five weeks to make the show. We did a bit of development earlier in the year; some stuff around casting and developing some of the music, before we went into full rehearsals.”
Byrne went into more detail regarding the source material: “There are two versions of the original novel. There’s the original French shorter story and then it was expanded as a novel, and then of course there’s the Disney remake, there’s the Jean Cocteau film (from 1946) – it’s been done many times.
“It’s also been done as a pantomime as well, but we’ve started from the original fairy-tale version. In that version, the father has three daughters and three sons, but we’ve only got three daughters; it’s just the way we’ve done it.”
One of the challenges faced was how to tackle the character of the Beast. “We’ve been doing a lot of work on how to present the Beast; how scary can he be? How strange?,” said Byrne. “And of course the thing at the very heart of this story is what is a beast and what happens to him and why is he a beast and what should he be like and how is he changed back?
“It’s quite a profound story about the nature of love and the nature of appearance, and how those two things interact with each other.”
The musical side of the production will also be original. “We started off with a French feel – we wanted accordion in the show and we did start off with some classic French songs from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, but I think we’ll end up with all originals.”
As highlighted earlier, the most famous version of Beauty and the Beast is probably Disney’s 1991 Oscar-winning extravaganza. What does this new play offer that makes it stand out? “It’s just very different, it’s a live experience,” the director responded. “It’s a thing about coming out to a family show at Christmas and sharing that experience. Also, it’s a different telling, a different angle.
“I think the thing we’ve tried to do is to say: ‘What’s the nature of the love story here and how and why is he transformed by love?’ I think people should come and see it because it’s going to be great. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s full of wonderful music and hopefully the way we do it will be quite naughty.
“It’s tongue-in-cheek and having fun with it, but at the same time trying to get to the real seriousness of what love is about and how does love change and transform us. It will be funny, light and delightful, but it will also have its heart on its sleeve. In the end it’s about a love story and that’s what we’re trying to pursue as hard as we can.”
December 6 to December 31
Tickets: £15.50 (£10 con) Group of four save 15% (max two adults)