A beast of a show as panto belts back in style at the Towngate

  Posted: 05.12.21 at 11:54 by REVIEW by Neil Speight

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THE return of live theatre to the region in recent months has been capped in Basildon by the opening of this year’s pantomime – and Beauty and the Beast being staged at the town’s Towngate Theatre certainly makes up for the lost time.

As ever at the Towngate, the show’s star is ever-popular Simon Fielding who not only takes centre stage but he produces, directs and arranges the music for the sumptuous show.

And, as is usually his style, Simon forgoes some of the more traditional elements of panto but makes his show a real homage to the West End, with spectacular ensemble numbers that doff respect to shows like Book of Mormon, Dear Evan Hansen and 42nd Street, and a fine cast of performers.

They are undoubtedly headed by the wonderful Madeleine Leslay. A graduate of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the Royal Academy of Music, Madeleine has already clocked up a number of milestones in her six year professional career, including a previous appearance at the Towngate as Alice Fitzwarren in 2019’s Dick Whittington.

Her vocal talents have seen her narrate a large number of audio books and she is currently featuring in BBC radio’s The Archers as feisty teen Chelsea Horrobin.

But to my mind her rightful place must be on the stage – she has a wonderful, powerful and emotional voice and her solo songs are stunning highlights of the show. She could grace any reading role in the West End and not be found wanting.

Ian Hallard as Dame Dolly shares banter with the audience. © Carmel Jane Photography

But, of course, it’s not a one woman show. Also taking the limelight as the regular villain of the piece is the delightfully wicked Sophie Ladds – once again attracting the boos and jeers as she cavorts through the plot, dispensing evil and alarm in her own inimitable style. Like Simon, it’s great to see her back and let’s hope this duo continue to light up the Towngate for many years to come.

The dame’s role, somewhat downplayed in Beauty on the Beast is admirably carried off by Ian Hallard while another previous Towngate panto performer Mark Faith returns as beauty Belle’s father Monsieur La Belle. Henry Shine completes the principals’ cast as Prince Adam and he too doesn’t miss a beat – and even showed his ability to adapt quickly with a microphone malfunction on the night I was watching.

The whole thing is stitched together, as ever, by Simon Fielding who bounces through the plot with unrelenting energy and enthusiasm an exemplifies a man who just loves what he does for a living.

One of Simon’s strengths is in creating impressive ensemble numbers and there are several in this show that feature great choreography and superb technical support and presentation. The Towngate is a real gem among small theatres and Simon makes the most of its shape, size and atmosphere almost pulling the audience right into the centre of the stage.

And it would be remiss of me not to praise the members of the ensemble, both the young professionals (including graduates from Corringham’s Performers’ College) making their way in the profession and the local children who are stunningly professional in everything they do.

Simon Fielding, Ian Hallard and Sophie Ladds share a nighttime moment. © Carmel Jane Photography

It would also be a negligence of duty not to add a word of praise to Basildon Council, not only for continuing to support this wonderful theatre, but making it the best it can be – in stark contrast to neighbouring Thurrock which sadly looks likely to lose its theatre due to council cuts. Possibly its final panto is Cinderella and a review of that will be appearing on Nub News shortly.

But back to Basildon. Beauty and the Beast may be a little short of the traditional pantomime ingredients but it’s none the worse for that. It’s another belter of a show that matches all the previous high standards and I am sure it’s going to thrill and delight audiences all the way to January.

To see performance details and to book, visit this link.

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