For his first Christmas season in charge of The New Theatre Royal, chief executive Scott Ramsay is certainly out to make his mark.
Among all of the other pantomimes and festive shows doing the rounds at this time of year, Scott is trying to do something a little different.
The NTR is putting on an all-new version of Beauty and The Beast, written and directed by Scott, who took the reins of the esteemed city centre venue back in March.
'Beauty and the Beast felt right for the Theatre Royal this year – people think they know it well and are comfortable with it. It ticks the boxes – it’s got the association of magic, a good solid story, and the elements that people like to see, there's a journey and a transformation and people becoming better people. It’s 60 years since it was last done as an in-house Christmas show at the New Theatre Royal.'
And Scott, a keen scholar of history, has looked at everything from the story's roots to his new home for inspiration.
'The story, as a popular theatre show is about 200 years old, but as a story it’s much, much older.
'Beauty and The Beast, like Cinderella and many other tales, came from different cultures around the world, but had similar themes. And then with the advent of literature and printing, this allowed people to move from spoken storytelling to written storytelling, and the two most famous texts for this story are French ones from the 18th century. When theatres started using it in about the Regency period, they drew on a much wider base of origins for the story. For many early versions of the show they set it in The Orient – they didn’t set in France – they set it in Persia, so you had camels on stage.
'There were big productions in Drury Lane and Covent Garden that were more like Aladdin, which surprises people today, but back then that was normal. A lot of magicians and illusionists used it as a theme for their acts – again quite often set in The Orient.
'But by the end of the Victorian period it sort of fell out of fashion, and then when the film industry started picking up on it in the 20th century they tended to go back to the French texts as the source material, so you started to see it set in France again.
'There are a lot of film versions, but if you ask most people they would associate it with Disney.
'Walt Disney originally took it on as a project in the 1930s, but he couldn’t work out how to make it work.
'It wasn't until long after he passed away that his team managed to work it out – they added devices to the story to make it work as a family-friendly musical adventure, so characters that are now part of the story in the 1991 animation weren’t part of the story before that–- they were created by Disney.'
The geography of the story isn't the only thing that's changed over the centuries is the public's attitudes to certain aspects of the story.
'The other shift that’s happened in recent years is the shift in sensibilities about what constitutes healthy relationships. There’s a lot about the story that isn’t palatable to today’s audiences, like someone being captured and falling in love with her captor.
'So we saw last year when Disney remade it in a live-action version, they tweaked some of that – they dealt with it much more sensitively.'
For his version, Scott has drawn from several versions, then thrown his own ideas into the pot to create something unique.
'I go back and celebrate the original folk tales, reference the 18th century French novels, but also the theatrical history of it and come up with a really strong storytelling vehicle.
'We’ve located that in Portsmouth – it doesn’t have to be in a village in France, that has no relevance to the story, really.
'We’re opening it in Old Portsmouth at the docks, and the characters you meet are born out of Portsmouth 200 years ago – we’re setting it in 1817, which was a thrilling time in Portsmouth, off the back of Trafalgar and Waterloo, people like Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Dickens were coming out of Portsmouth, and the old Theatre Royal, which was on the High Street, where part of the Grammar School is now, was the main theatre, so there’s a nice crossover there –we’ve actually brought that in to the story.
'One of the characters, Madame Crummles, sweeps into town with her theatre troupe and takes up residence at the old Theatre Royal. Beauty and her brother Will get caught up in that troupe, and then the opportunity to make it big in London comes up and they make their way up the old London Road, which has become the A3, through the Forest of Bere – which wasn’t pleasant at the time, things don’t go to plan, and they come across the castle, which is sort of inspired by Rowlands Castle, they meet The Beast and the love story starts.
There was a fair bit of research to be done for the play, too.
'Yes, there was a quite a bit that had to be done – but I’m a sponge for history, I can’t help myself, taking in tidbits, little facts, and I like to use those. You don’t want to be boring, you don’t want to be fastidious and force history down people’s throats, but it’s a nice touch if something can be referenced where an element of the audience will go: "Ah, that’s authentic". And I truly think the story is lifted because it’s in this much more vibrant, recognisable, location, and if people are then inspired to visit some these places, that’s a good thing.'
It also harks back to the Victorian tradition of 'the extravaganza,' and of course there's a nod to one of Portsmouth's most famous literary sons.
'It’s very much a family Christmas musical – lots of entertainment. It’s a cross between a musical and a big-scale extravaganza. There's lots of comedy, but it’s not quite the same as panto – there’s not a panto dame, but there’s an equally strong character in there in Madame Crummles. She’s inspired by Charles Dickens. When he was successful author, he came back to visit Portsmouth and visit the old Theatre Royal with a friend, and that inspired him to write a scene in Nicholas Nickleby. Nicholas and Smike take a boarding room in the dockyard, in the novel, and they get caught up with the Crummles family who have a theatre troupe who go into the Theatre Royal and do a show, so that’s referenced in it, but not in a way that’s shoehorning it in – it’s taking something that I think will work, and then looking around at how that fits into things that have happened in Portsmouth, and celebrating someone who’s from here.'
They have also turned their back on modern panto casting policies.
'We’ve got a fantastic cast – they’re all really strong performers, we’re not going down the route of getting someone who’s done a reality TV show or something like that – we’re concentrating on quality and it being the strongest show possible, as as at the end of the day, that’s going to make the best show.'
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Until December 31