— Middle Child (@MiddleChildHull) 4 December 2018
There is nothing Middle Child love more than to warp your preconceptions. They take what we know, blow off the dust, and twist it, sharpen it, turn it upside down, inside out and then – and only then – do you have a production that has the kind of quick-witted vibrancy that is Middle Child’s standard. For their seventh alternative pantomime, they toyed with the gilded tale of Beauty and the Beast. Held in Jubilee Central, a multicultural church at the heart of Hull, the ceilings were as high as their ambition to contemporise an age-old tale and form. For most, pantomimes are the first experience they have of live theatre: ‘Beauty and the Beast’, written and directed by Paul Smith, proves that they still play a vital role in creating a new generation of theatre lovers.
The plot itself is still unmistakably the fairytale we know and love; every trope and tradition of the pantomime is in its place, but full of Middle Child flavour. A pantomime wouldn’t be a pantomime without gags that fly over the kids’ heads, cracking a laugh or a guilty smile from the adults. The wise-cracks, though packed with ill-concealed innuendos, are just as much political as anything else. For Middle Child, an intellectual, alternative group, it would come as no surprise that satire is a well-sharpened tool in their box. Taking aim at capitalism and the issue of gentrification, with the money-grabbing villain Lord Wigbert intending to build a Tesco on Humber Street, Middle Child tailor their work to a politically conscious audience. In saying that, it’s not tacked on or heavy-handed: its lightly seasoned, seamlessly fitting with the pace of the panto.
Enter: Marc Graham, our pantomime dame. Playing Belinda, Belle’s mother, Graham’s performance – like his wigs – is loud, hilarious and brilliantly colourful. He bears all the hallmarks of a classic pantomime dame, with his shrill voice and flouncing floral dresses reminiscent of your nan’s curtains. He sings with an ironic sincerity, joining in on performing the music once again down to James Frewer. The renditions span from Arctic Monkeys all the way to the eyebrow-raising Baby Shark, all surprising and ridiculous enough to fit right in.
Every pantomime, when it comes down to it, is an art in improvisation. Even in the moments where you thought, ‘Was that meant to happen?’ (I’m looking at you, Lord Wigbert, and your runaway moustache) the cast in its entirety adapted with conviction. Often, it is from these mishaps that the best comedy comes to light. For that reason, the cast was hard to fault. There was a collective confidence that never wavered.
‘Beauty and The Beast’ fortified Middle Child’s reputation for putting on varied, witty and incredibly smart productions. Here is the proof: there is nothing they can’t do.