A wedding is a favourite way to end a fairytale, but the happy event doesn’t usually take place after the couple have already had three children together. Inspired by a Nordic variation of Beauty and the Beast often known as Valemon, The White Bear King, the story (adapted and directed by Hannah Mulder) hinges on an adventurous female protagonist whose determination and a sharp pair of iron talons made by a clever blacksmith help her to “claw her way to freedom” and isn’t afraid to subvert conventions. The Wrong Crowd’s mischievous and irreverent approach is refreshingly free from moralising, suggesting that straying from the path doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you have a bit of ingenuity.
The titular Girl (Clare Fraenkel) is the favourite of her father the king, who has already decided that she will be the one to take care of him in his old age, and her vacuous sisters, a puppet-and-human double-act, are only interested in dresses and diamonds. Longing for an existence beyond the castle walls, she is entranced by a spinning band of gold seen in her dreams and is prepared to go to any lengths to obtain it. While wandering in the forest, a white bear (Chris MacDonald) offers her the band if she agrees to live with him. In true fairytale style, he’s actually a young king under a curse cast by the rebuffed Troll Queen, (literally) desperate to get her claws in him, that condemns his to live as a bear by day and a man by night. She gives birth to three daughters over three years, despite never having seen the face of the man in her bed.
A show that will appeal equally to children and adults is one of the hardest tasks that a theatre company can set itself. It isn’t easy to explore the story’s strange sexual elements while keeping the show suitable for eight-year-olds: the bedroom scenes are tastefully done using silhouettes, but there is something unsettling about the idea of a virgin who is made love to by a lover whose face she isn’t allowed to see, while all the time not quite knowing what is happening. On the other end of the spectrum, the repetition is probably more appealing to children. It’s common for things in fairytales to come in threes (three babies, three crones, three sleeping draughts, etc.), which can become a little wearing.
The piece excels visually and aurally with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s nuanced soundtrack and Rachael Canning’s marvellous puppets. The Bear himself is an enormously endearing presence and the preternaturally wise baby doll puppets are touching without being mawkish. Perhaps best of all is the Troll Queen, who in a screech of rage transforms into an enormous bald papier maché head with a snout-like nose and enormous talons, a truly grotesque creation who combines menace with sardonic humour and gruesome ideas about what to do with the body parts of dispatched retainers.
There is a great deal of humour in the show offsetting the dreamlike atmosphere. Laura Cairns shows delightful versatility in her many roles and is equally engaging in all of them. The hugely charismatic Arran Glass is a natural storyteller who holds the audience in the palm of his hand, the perfect gateway into an enchanted world where nothing is quite as it seems.
Read Exeunt’s interview with The Wrong Crowd here.