Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 2 December 2014

Grimm Tales for Young and Old

Bargehouse ⋄ until 15th February 2015

Falling down the rabbit hole.

Mary Halton

Waiting to enter Grimm Tales in a woodchip-strewn bar surrounded by tumbling chairs and lamps, it’s difficult not to feel as though you are literally falling down the rabbit hole. Specially commissioned artworks line the corridors, even transitional spaces turn out to be the residence of denizens of other tales; their belongings carefully tucked away for you to find. Thematically appropriate graffiti adorns the stairwells. A host of golden objects hanging from the ceiling of the bar makes more sense when you are finally ejected from the last story. Every aspect of the production design is lavish – almost beyond belief – but holds to an aesthetic of using found objects, with bike wheels, doors and bathtubs all appearing in the fairytale universe. Rubber chippings (9 tonnes, I overhear) carpet the floors of some rooms – each reminding us that we are somewhere different, that this is not firm ground and these are not the tales we thought we knew.

So, Grimm Tales is stunningly, memorably, you-would-probably-pay-just-to-walk-around-it beautiful. But what of the stories themselves? For anyone who saw the production’s first outing at Shoreditch Town Hall, this is an entirely new raft of tales; all (a little disappointingly) revealed on the website, should you care to look in advance. What greater pleasure there would have been in trying to figure out which ones you were watching. With the evening’s audience split in two, we are invited from fable to fable and room to room.

From The Three Little Men in the Woods (perhaps better known as Perrault’s Diamonds and Toads) to Thousandfurs (a darker and more interesting Cinderella) and The Frog Prince, the fables range from the well to the lesser known, but each has elements that will be new to anyone who has predominantly encountered the Ladybird versions. Thousandfurs was escaping not a wicked stepmother but an incestuous, abusive father, and it’s far from a kiss that turns the frog to a prince once more. There is an elegant simplicity to the delivery of these tales – with a pulsing, gloved hand playing the part of the frog and golf club geese racing around in carts – but although sweetly told, it is difficult to find £45 worth of storytelling here. It is no stretch to see where the production are spending this money, but it does make it very difficult to recommend to families with children (for whom it is perfect) as the cost of bringing even a modest group of people is enough to make anyone pale.

For those with a curiosity for tales often told, Grimm Tales is designed to be much more storytelling than theatre – with the characters delivering Pullman’s adapted tales word for word, including all the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ of narration, which can be somewhat distracting. There’s not much new in the delivery – pretty women are virtuous, the truth is uncovered when their adopted ugliness or disguise can be thrown off, and though they are often more industrious and independent than is represented by Disney, these are still women who are good because they are beautiful and willing to be obediently married off. Pullman himself praises fairytales for this simplicity of form, and many of the characters are archetypes, but with the Grimm’s first collection of stories just over 200 years old, and many of its contents dating even further back to Perrault’s French publication, one sometimes longs to see a little something added to their interpretation.

But it would be unfair to fault Grimm Tales for being faithful to the originals – and these warts and all versions in which people are unceremoniously thrown out palace windows, drowned and rolled down hills in barrels are bound to delight those all the more used to a sanguine recounting. Not the place to go looking for Angela Carter or a new take on the folkloric consequences of getting lost in a forest dark and deep, but a very stylish and lovingly crafted telling.


Mary Halton

Mary is a writer and critic, interested in performance, science and popular culture. By day, she works in radio drama, by night she studies planetary science at Birkbeck, and by dusk and dawn she writes Exeunt's science blog Strangeness + Charm. For Christmas, she would like a timeturner.

Grimm Tales for Young and Old Show Info

Produced by Grimm Productions

Directed by Philip Wilson

Written by Philip Pullman

Cast includes Kate Alder, 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, Robert Willoughby




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