If I were a teacher looking for a seasonal theatrical show to take a bunch of kids to, this season I would choose Philip Pullman’s re-telling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales which opened last night in London.
Adapted and directed by Philip Wilson from Pullman’s Grimm Tales, this fantastical show is set in the Bargehouse, a four-storey warehouse which has retained its internal industrial landscape as part of Oxo Tower Wharf on the South Bank. Generally it is used for exhibitions, shows and edgy fashion events.
We all have views, internal imaginings, on how our favourite characters from books must look, speak and behave. Anyone who dares to take these off the page and breathe life into them on the stage is taking a risk with their audiences’ most beloved.
Reviews for shows such as Timothy Sheader’s To Kill A Mockingbird, currently touring Britain, have praised how Atticus, Tom Robinson and the rest of the characters spring out of Harper Lee’s novel to live and breathe on the stage. At times, actors read from the novel, subtly enhancing this page-to-stage process. Here, in Grimm Tales, the experience seems almost to work the other way round. The actors take the audience from the stage with them into the page. With almost no technology apart from traditional stagecraft, we experience a virtual reality through a spellbinding invocation of the imagination. Hansel, Gretel, Thousandfurs and numerous wicked step mothers, frogs, witches, dwarves and creepy children don’t so much as spring out from the pages as pull us down into them. They simultaneously deliver and narrate their own lines. We are drawn, Pied Piper style, into their worlds of spells, spookiness, fairy, magic. It is dark, but also comical, with appealing dollops of farce and arch irony. I took our 13-year-old son, who grew up listening to stories from the Grimm fairytales. He was fascinated, his attention held by every second in spite of its length and lateness, and he judged it, literally, “weird”. He was the only child watching in our group and I dream of seeing children fired up by this show, which is fine for anyone from eight up.
Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether we were sitting next to members of the audience or the cast. Early on, I nearly sat on a frog disguised as a bench. It instantly gave me a heart-melting froggy smile. A beautiful princess went on not to kiss but to abuse this frog, and even with all that he still turned into a prince and they lived happily ever after. In another tale there was an ugly sister who kept coughing up stomach-churning frogs, very different from “my” frog but equally convincing. Without giving away how it’s done, I confess that it will be strange to wear rubber gloves to do the washing up ever again. Then there is the old king whose beautiful wife dies and who decides that the only way to replace her is to marry his even more beautiful daughter instead. Amazing how, in the current age, we can be made to laugh at an incestuous paedophile, and how this process somehow robs such terrors of their evil power while showing us their seductive powers.
Special mention must go to Tom Rogers’ intricate and wonderful sets, and the magical lighting, by Howard Hudson, who has created stars of the show that give the audience the impression of being surrounded by dancing fireflies. All done with on-message long-life lightbulbs too. Never realised such bulbs could be assembled to look so beautiful.
The audience of 300 was divided and we moved from set piece to piece, with three groups of between four and six performers in each, through winding staircases and ghostly corridors, just like some fairy castle out of a Grimm tale, or the house in Grand Meaulnes come to life. From the point of view of bringing children, it bears a little comparison, if you’ve been recently, to the London Dungeon experience just a bit further up the river in its new home near the London Eye. Attention to detail was extraordinary with no inch of the Bargehouse left un-morphed. Vintage lace and cotton dresses floated above stairwells, His Master’s Voice gramophones peeked out from corners, walls covered with sepia photographs, faded pug pictures, antique cartoons and graffiti, as if we were trolling through the baroque inner workings of a genius author’s mind, or his memory of turrets in a grandmother’s Victorian gothic house. The illusion continued through the interval, when we drank delicious fresh berry juice in a room full of chairs that could not be sat on because they floated beyond reach, askew on the walls. We found a sofa of a thousand furs to sit on though, and it thankfully stayed dead when we did. The heavily-aromatic wood chip flooring throughout added to the sensation of being, like Hansel and Gretel, or Red Riding Hood, pulled “into the woods”.
Pullman and Wilson in the programme notes compare what they are doing to Disney. They refer to the overall aesthetic as “scruffy salvage”. Wilson says: “It’s industrial, corrugated iron, wood, found objects. Someone commented that it’s the antidote to the Disney-fication of these tales.” Pullman adds: “Yes, it’s a shame if the Disney version is the only version of the story that the children know; it is better when they have other versions as well… But in many ways Disney was a great storyteller.” It doesn’t matter, because the stories are so strong they can withstand all kinds of tellings, he concludes. With Disney’s highly-ancticipated Into The Woods about to come out, Grimm Tales might be regarded not as an antidote but as a Spenserian Faerie Queene style addition to the genre, a sensory four or five-dimensional telling that can open imaginations and fire them with dreams and thought.
The cast were all strong, but those who stood out for us were Sabina Arthur, so exquisitely expressive, the rather sinister and faithful duo Paul Clerking and Johnson Willis, the ever-versatile Leda Hodgson who we saw and loved in A Doll’s House and the magnetic Maria Omakinwa. Of course we adored all those devilishly handsome young frogs, kings and princes – James Byng, Richard Mark, Joel Robinson, John Seaward, Robert Willoughby, Anthony Ofoegbu. The princesses, witches, maids and wicked stepmothers, dazzling us with their glamours, their false, grey skins, golden tresses and cloudy veils, were Kate Adler, Morag Cross, Amanda Gordon, Nessa Matthews and Megan Salter.
Site-specific theatre has taken off in the last ten years, where spectacle and placement is crucial to the experience. This is not a show that can be done anywhere, although it is not an immovable feast and was on at Shoreditch last year. The presentation at the Bargehouse does seem a function of the building, although the power of the play is such that the audience is totally immersed, to the point of forgetting where or even when you actually are. For some thought-provoking escapism that all the family can enjoy on many levels, it cannot be recommended highly enough.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
Philip Pullman’s GRIMM TALES FOR YOUNG & OLD opens at the Bargehouse London.
This week, the doors of the sprawling Bargehouse on the Southbank, London will be prised open to reveal the extraordinary world of The Brothers Grimm.
Cast: Kate Adler, Sabina Arthur, James Byng, Paul Clerkin, Morag Cross, Amanda Gordon, Leda Hodgson, Richard Mark, Nessa Matthews, Anthony Ofoegbu, Maria Omakinwa, Joel Robinson, Megan Salter, John Seaward, Johnson Willis and Robert Willoughby.
Philip Wilson – Adaptor & Director
Valerie Coward – Producer
Catherine Botibol – Executive Producer
Tom Rogers – Set & Costume Designer
Richard Hammarton – Composer & Sound Designer
Howard Hudson – Lighting Designer
Sarah Butcher – Assistant Director
Kay Magson – Casting Director
Alison Duddle – Puppets designed by Alison and Horse & Bamboo.
Darren Lang – Magic Consultant
Andy Reader – Production Manager
Timothy Peacock – Assistant Production Manager
21st November 2014 – 15th February 2015
THE BARGEHOUSE, OXO TOWER WHARF
Oxo Tower Wharf
London SE1 9PH
Children under 16: £20
Family Ticket (2 Adults and 2 Children): £125
Students (NUS Card holders) & Groups (10+): £25
Additional booking charges may apply
Book at www.grimm-tales.co.uk
Thursday 27th November 2014