DALE Rooks, director of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s adaptation of the fairy tale, tells EDWIN GILSON about the moral message of the production and its very special first audience member

IF ANYTHING will convince you of the shining reputation of the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, it’s the fact that the first person to see the group’s latest show was Her Majesty The Queen. Director Dale Rooks has been captivating theatregoers with her annual Christmas productions for many years but, even with her experience, the royal visit was a career highlight.

“It was absolutely amazing – we’re all still pinching ourselves,” she says. “Was it really her? Did we really perform in front of the Queen?”

As Dale says, the group “let the beast out for the first time” when Her Majesty stopped by – even though their forthcoming version of Beauty and the Beast wasn’t finished at that point. The group also introduced the Queen to Una, the large-scale model elephant that was at the centre of the group’s play Running Wild that eventually transferred to Regent’s Park.

That adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel is an example of how CFYT have excelled in recent years; it has become known as a home to promising young actors, many of whom have gone on to perform on the West End. One graduate starred in The Book of Mormon and Les Miserables. The CFYT relies on children and teenagers making time for rehearsals after school and at the weekend. Dale admits that it can be a tiring business but the actors’ enthusiasm makes up for their fatigue.

“They might have had challenging days at school but they’re young – they bound back with energy and are very committed,” she says. In its original incarnation, Beauty and the Beast was a French folk tale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740.

Numerous versions have appeared since then, including the 1991 Disney film and this year’s Hollywood movie starring Emma Watson. Dale was keen “not to take the Disney route”. Instead, Richard Taylor has devised a fresh score and new characters have been written into the plot.

“It’s lovely for our actors to be taking part in a world premiere – something completely new that we can develop,” says the director. “We’re not scared of challenging them with the material.”

Finding your way in the world can be difficult as a child or young teenager but stories like Beauty and the Beast emphasise the values of self-esteem and individuality. “One of the wonderful things about this is that we talk about beauty being on the inside,” says Dale. “With the Beauty character in our play, she doesn’t wear a pretty dress, she wears dungarees. She does gardening, too – she likes getting her hands dirty.

“In this day and age so much is based on having the right image, but true beauty comes from the inside. Sometimes embracing what makes you different is also what makes you special.”

In the director’s eyes CFYT is “like a big family,” with some members staying with the group for as many as nine years. Dale admits her role often extends to that of a personal mentor towards the children, and that she keeps in touch with them once they’ve moved on. Dale balances her directing duties with her position as education director at the theatre, which sounds all-consuming, but she says she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I live it and I love it,” she laughs.

And, of course, the Queen swinging by makes it all the more gratifying.

Beauty and the Beast
Chichester Festival Theatre, December 16 to 31. For tickets and more information visit cft.org.uk or call 01243 781312