The curtain rises on a girl reaching for a book in an old library; the tableau looks like a picture in a storybook. She opens the book and the story begins: Beauty and the Beast.
This visual version of “once upon a time” is the enchanting opening to David Bintley’s brooding and sometimes genuinely scary ballet. Mood and magic are aided immeasurably by Bintley’s collaborators. Philip Prowse’s marvellous designs show the proximity of home to wilderness: a merchant’s house, its wall topped with sinister owls and eagles, mists seeping in from the looming forest beyond. Mark Jonathan’s lighting casts the whole production in shifting shadows, and the music, by Glenn Buhr, is dense with restless harmonies that never quite resolve into something straightforwardly recognisable – which is just as it should be for a fairy tale.
Nao Sakuma, the girl in the library, plays Belle, a merchant’s daughter; Robert Parker is the prince who has been turned into the Beast. In the first half, Belle’s father (David Morse) takes refuge in the Beast’s castle while journeying through the forest, and is terrorised into offering his daughter to the Beast. Prowse’s set really comes into its own here, the forest unfolding and unfolding again so when it finally reveals the castle, we feel we’ve entered a secret world.
But from here on, the story itself becomes hard to follow, and loses touch with its emotional core. More seriously, it becomes apparent that Belle is little more than a cipher: Sakuma plays her prettily rather than passionately, and Bintley himself seems curiously uninterested in her character.
Parker, however, is terrific: though obscured in a mask and covered in fur, he variously portrays cruelty, suffering, rage and wonder. The Beast, at least, commands both fear and sympathy – just a fairy-tale monster should.