BELLE-ISIMA! Life is pretty grim at the moment so any excuse for a two- hour distraction from the daily drudge is to be warmly welcomed.

And what a distraction Beauty and the Beast is. After Covid put pay to last year’s panto it’s pure magic to welcome Simon Fielding and his immensely talented crew back for another barnstorming offering at the Towngate Theatre in Basildon.

You always know you’re in for a traditional treat at the Towngate come Christmastime and this year is no different. The production is a delight- packed to the rafters with dancing, singing, jokes, a pantomime dame (played by Ian Hallard) and even a super clever tongue twister skit that demonstrates just how professional Simon and his acting co-stars are.

As always Simon, who stars as Villy (that’s short for Village Idiot), races about the stage with as much energy and enthusiasm as a teenager. He also produces, directs and handles the musical staging for the show. I honestly wonder how he does it. He’s told me before it’s because he loves his job so much and that he’s never happier than when he’s on the stage at the Towngate. It certainly shows.

Every year I wonder why Sophie Ladds who has become a stalwart part of the Towngate pantomime for 13 years now hasn’t been snapped up by Hollywood. It’s a pleasure to watch her in action. As always she plays the baddie. This year she excels as Villeneuve, the evil governess intent on getting the prince/beast (Henry Shine), to fall in love with her and waltz her down the aisle.

But of course the beast only has eyes for the beautiful and kindly Belle, played so wholesomely by Madeline Leslay.

Although they have their place some of the more traditional pantos like Dick Whittington, Puss In Boots and Peter Pan can get a bit weary year after year so it’s a welcome change to have a different tale played out- especially one with a moral of the story that in our self-absorbed, social media entrenched age, is more important than ever.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was the terrific special effects at the end of the show where the curse is broken and the beast returns to his previously handsome and charming self. Kudos to the team for such a clever scene. It was also great to see local drama school children get to perform again after last year’s forced panto hiatus.

Basildon is indebted to Simon Fielding and his efforts over 14 consecutive years now which have changed the fortunes of the Towngate. His productions have won a number of gongs, including two Great British Pantomime Awards and are regularly hailed as being on a par with– or even superseding- far more expensive pantomimes in London.

With everything that’s going on in the world at the moment if you fancy just kicking back for a couple of hours and having a blast then book your ticket for this dazzling beauty of a show today.

Beauty and the Beast is on at the Towngate Theatre in St Martin’s Square, Basildon until Monday January 3. Tickets are from £12.50. Call the box office on 01268 205 300 or visit to book.