Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 24 March 2014

Grimm Tales For Young and Old

Shoreditch Town Hall ⋄ 14th March - 24th April 2014

Sleek and sharp but bloodless.

The Grimm Tales might be so grisly that they’ve shored up our vocabulary on the bleak and unpleasant, but they’re not really that Grimm at all – the eponymous brothers were compilers, not authors, in a semi-scholarly tradition that Philip Pullman’s 2013 reworking, Grimm Tales: For Young and Old reverentially follows.

Philip Wilson has taken five of these tales and turned them into a promenade production that offers a slick, glossy-leaved kind of magic, but though its page-flipping pace might be a godsend for fairy sceptics, it won’t necessarily leave believers clapping their hands with joy.

The five tales are a well-chosen mix of familiar stories, their Bowdler hats of sanitisation and anglicisation firmly off, and darker tales dragged straight from Grimm forests. As well as adapting, Wilson also directs, and in an impressive feat akin to conducting angry French motorists, he finds a way to drive the traffic of two separate audiences along two distinct, seldom meeting paths through the performance spaces.

The transitions between stories and rooms are near seamless, and their stagings are well thought out and imaginative; traverse seating makes for plenty of charging, surging energy, and lets the front row tangle with flowing princess dresses or clashing weapons. Little Red Riding Hood delivers the fewest thrills; in her satisfyingly swishy red cape, she’s innocent prey to Simon Wegrzyn’s darlingly debonair, fur-clad wolf, before enacting satisfyingly swift revenge.

Rapunzel’s name is just as familiar, but her outcast wanderings in desolate scrubland, begging with two illegitimate children, are a little less Disney-friendly. The piece’s doubling doubles the confusions in the story’s speedy transitions from generation to generation; Sabina Arthur shifts from mother to daughter with naive charm, but with her confinement in the tower over in minutes it’s hard to feel her root-tugging pain.

The lesser known tale, The Juniper Tree, is even weedier – its surreal, childish logic features the beheading of an infant that’s as bloodless as the picking of an apple, a Titus Andronicus-style teatime treat, and a singing bird who makes ruthless use of the rule of three.

Hans-My-Hedgehog and The Three Snake Leaves have more meat – if even less bloodshed – thanks to their picaresque, swashbuckling tales of wild adventure. They’re also a lot more fun, in part because their twists are genuinely unpredictable. Simon Wegrzyn shines, again, with wicked changeling glee as a hedgehog son, born in faerie vengeance for his father’s careless way with words. And The Three Snake Leaves’ tale of burial alive, surprise resurrections and treacherous infidelity has some of the sepulchral darkness that the rest of these underground tales are missing.

What the stories lack in blood, gore and noir is made up for, in part, by the grimly atmospheric setting. Shoreditch Town Hall was in disrepair for decades – a local ban on boxing in 1969 put an end to the tournaments that had kept it afloat after council operations moved elsewhere. Upstairs, the venue is crisp and column-lined and wedding friendly; the dank basement rooms below have been left to romantically crumble and stale with sweat.

Tom Rogers’ set design sits beautifully in them. He’s supplemented the cramped 1860s interiors, with their cast iron ranges and fireplaces and chipped plaster, with enough contemporary accoutrements to make them timeless, suggesting a sepulchral forest world. Between the main performance spaces, decked with tree-like assemblages of ropes and lamps, installations pick out small leaves from the rest of Grimm Tales’ compendious pages. A red apple, carefully framed like a glowing icon in a tiny wall-niche, references Snow White, who’s sleeping still as a plaster saint in a glass coffin two rooms along.

There’s not quite the same subtlety in the tales themselves, though – Philip Pullman tells them in what he calls a “clear as water” style, bringing out their musicality, as well as their themes in scholarly notes. The production makes much of the fact that these are his adaptations, but although the author’s famous for his subtle handling of adolescent themes and sexuality in the Northern Lights trilogy, his retelling of the Grimm tales wouldn’t shock any librarians. He adapts them almost invisibly, a shining link in the chain that transmits them through the centuries; his wry humour melts away under the sharply-paced, heavily stylised story theatre approach that smoothes out these eccentric, twisted tales.

This slick presentation makes for a faintly corporate kind of magic – Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold. Tie-in cocktails, a link up with Shoreditch restaurant, The Clove Club for dinner and Penguin sponsorship which perhaps makes Pullman’s involvement overly prominent – he’s still pulling the Book of Dust out of the shadows for 2015 publication – give the impression that this is more for his titular Old than Young. But for adults, there’s not enough maturity, depth or sheer old-fashioned grisliness in the presentation of the stories to make this more than an exercise in style and atmosphere; sleek, wolfishly sharp but bloodless.


Grimm Tales For Young and Old Show Info

Produced by Valerie Coward

Directed by Philip Wilson

Written by Philip Wilson

Cast includes Rebecca Bainbridge, Annabel Betts, Paul Clerkin, Simon Wegrzyn, Ashley Alymann, Sabina Arthur, James Byng, Lindsay Dukes


Running Time 105 mins



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