Christopher Gray finds a Christmas cracker

Always a must-see feature of the festive celebrations in Oxford, the Playhouse pantomime is as much a part of Christmas as mince pies and crackers. Comical, colourful and brimming with feelgood fun, this year’s Beauty and the Beast is set to delight thousands in the weeks ahead. Book now and make sure you’re among the happy punters.

Writing and direction are once more in the practised hands of Peter Duncan, his ninth year in the job and the first he is not simultaneously parading his acting (and indeed acrobatic) talents elsewhere. He has come up with his own take on the plot, which derives from an 18th-century fairy tale by the lavishly named French writer, Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Most, of course, know it from the Cocteau and Disney films, in which Beauty’s love for her captor the Beast — when it eventually develops — is able to turn him into a handsome prince.

Perhaps at this stage I might enter one minor cavil concerning the action. We are led to believe, I think, that winsome Prince George (Michael Pickering) has been transformed into the hideous Beast (Alan Vicary) by the spell of an evil witch whose all-seeing eye surveys the scene from the ‘baddies’ side of the stage (in pantomime convention). This is never spelt out in clear terms, however, and remains a bit of a puzzle, despite the best efforts of the excellent narrator, Fairy Sponge (Helena Raeburn).

Meanwhile, we find that some of the characters are said to exist only in the dreams and imagination of heroine Beauty (Sammy Andrews), sparking a debate concerning reality which might be a bit baffling to younger members of the audience — and, indeed, to this rather old one. There is even talk of existentialism — not a topic often aired in pantomimes, even in learned Oxford.

But such concerns don’t really impinge too much on the two-hour feast of fun. Much of this is supplied by the outrageous larking about, and even more outrageous costumes, of Leon Craig, as Dame Jolena Jollychops. Many will remember his imposing height and fabulous singing voice from his dame duties in 2012’s Dick Whittington. He’s as big a hoot again this year.

Ably assisting in the comic capers is Dave Bibby’s Jolly Jack who soon becomes a firm favourite with junior members of the audience. The closing singalong he leads to 76 Trombones could probably be heard on Carfax.

In a story short of a hissable villain (except for the witch seen only in her eye) we have to make do with Beauty’s bitch of a sister, Rosamund (Georgia Carling), for someone to dislike. Dancing attendance on her are suitors Charlie (André Fabien Francis) and Johnno (Will Lucas).

Music plays a major part in the show’s success, with a tight team of talented instrumentalists led from the piano by musical director Darren Reeves.

Acrobatics is important too, with Kate McWilliam — Peter Duncan’s partner in the recent BBC reality show Tumble — as a very flexible, tightrope-walking dog called Tumble-toes. You’ll love her.

Beauty & The Beast
Oxford Playhouse
Until January 18
01865 305305,