Beauty and the Beast – Grand Opera House – Review
by Cathy Brown
Until Jan 20th 2020
This year’s annual Christmas panto at the Grand Opera House see Northern Ireland’s favourite dame, May McFettridge, take to the stage for his 30th year. This milestone anniversary brings to mind the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and highlights the fact that the Grand Opera House knows just what its audience wants and is happy to provide it.
The plot begins in familiar territory. In Ballyfettridge Castle, Prince Sebastian (Ben Richards) has been turned into a Beast by The Enchantress (Joanna O’Hare) to teach him humility. To break the curse, someone must fall in love with him just as he is. Enter perky, clear-voiced Belle (Georgia Lennon), who – while trying to evade the clutches of the big-headed Flash Harry (Danny Bayne) – ends up trapped in the Beast’s castle along with her father Paddy, The Inventor (Paddy Jenkins) and the crazily costumed Mrs Potty (May McFettridge).
At this point, the narrative largely takes its leave in favour of set pieces and skits designed to maximize the stage time of comedy duo McFettridge and Jenkins, who delight the packed audience every time they are on stage. The creaky script contains some dated jokes that fall flat, but audience participation featuring a camera and a large screen finally enlivens proceedings in the opening half.
This big, brash pantomime comes complete with fabulous sets, over-the-top costumes and dazzling light displays. Production values are high with pyrotechnics, striking wire work and a truly impressive coup de théâtre just before the interval that had the audience, young and old, squealing in delight.
It does, however, have some real pacing and plot issues and despite some strong song-and-dance numbers by the impressive ensemble, lacks any coherent narrative. Joanna O’Hare as The Enchantress has a beautiful singing voice, which helps as she has the thankless task of popping up on stage throughout to keep the audience updated on what is happening in the story.
May McFettridge is the star attraction of course, keeping the audience happy with insults, gags with a particularly Northern Irish flavour and an ability to make her co-stars corpse at a moment’s notice. Paddy Jenkins is a predictable if uninspiring foil, facilitating the jokes rather than initiating them. Danny Bayne looks the part as the preening Flash Harry, but fails to reach the enjoyable heights of proper panto villainy. Magic Mandy (Mandy Muden), fresh off Britain’s Got Talent, has a likeable on-stage charm and her dry wit is a match for the Northern Ireland audience.
The romantic central duo of Beauty and the Beast are pleasingly played by Georgia Lennon and Ben Richards, who has good physicality and a strong singing voice, however his vocals are at times somewhat muffled by his mask.
He gets a chance to let his hair down so to speak in the successful Twelve Days of Christmas routine, which brings the house down and provides the only real moment of pure panto entertainment in the whole show. Overall, there needed to be a lot more of this kind of anarchic fun to make Beauty and the Beast memorable.
The annual pantomime at the Grand Opera House has become a Belfast tradition, relishing its boundaries rather than attempting to push them. There are some truly funny moments here – Mrs Potty as a back-flipping Mrs Incredible, exploding stage equipment and inspired lip-synching – but in the main Beauty and the Beast sticks to what it knows will work for its core audience.
With 30% of the tickets already sold for next year’s pantomime and John Linehan entering his 31st year at the helm, it looks like the Grand Opera House know a winning formula when they see one and are unlikely to make any major changes to their festive offering when it re-opens next year.