AS a regular visitor to the Sunderland Empire, Birmingham Royal Ballet is always assured of a warm reception, and this is certainly the case with Beauty and the Beast, now performing to packed audiences.

A new ballet, which was premiered last December in the company's home town, it apparently attracted some less-than-flattering reviews from the national press, although regional reporters have since been more complimentary.

Personally, I find it hard to think of anything to criticise about the ballet - I loved it.

From the opening scene, sumptuous costumes and beautifully designed sets combine to transport you to a fantasy world. But this is no Disney film set, with animated characters singing schmaltzy ballads.

In fact, it's a dark and mysterious place where lighting is used to great effect to create a sense of eerie drama.

As the story unfolds, we witness the merchant encountering the angry beast after taking a flower from his garden and having to surrender his virtuous daughter Belle as compensation. In her goodness, she sees beyond the beast's ugliness and ultimately grows to love him.

Molly Smolen and Tiit Helimets are perfectly matched as Belle and the Beast (perhaps inevitably, as they're married in real life) and are ably supported by a cast of well-defined, often humourous characters. The musical score perfectly complements the story, with glockenspiel and drums used to create a whimsical or menacing tone.

Possibly not a ballet best suited to children, but certainly something clever and original.

* Runs until Saturday. Box office 0191-514 2517.

Published: 13/02/2004