Bluebelle opens with six skittish, white-faced creatures shuffling onto the stage, pouting and trilling. They start to caper about, delighting in their own ability to dance. They’re eager to perform, to use the dark stage for its primary purpose. As these creatures merge into the characters of the story they’ll be telling, ‘the magic of theatre’ remains a gentle running theme in the production. That can feel thin as a foundational premise, or too broad, too wafty. But I suppose it’s excusable these days, given, you know. (Shoreditch Town Hall is still going notably hard on the pandemic precautions, with distanced seating and Covid Passes that are actually scrutinised at the door. Theatre Re have spent three years working on Bluebelle, presumably at least in part because of pandemic-related interruptions, so the particularly stringent attempts to keep the wolf from the door during their four-night run are understandable.) And there is something genuinely magical about the company’s new production as part of the London International Mime Festival: it’s got a warm twinkle and touches of wonder.
The set and props, collaboratively designed by the company, hit the notes of “fairytale folk aesthetic” in a way that generally avoids twee and is often delightful. Props – two carved wooden crowns; a telescope; a leather-covered book; a velvet cushion – hang from the ceiling and are winched in and out of play on a rope-and-pulley system operated by the performers onstage. It’s not magic, because you can clearly see its workings, but instead it has the simple efficiency of good stage management, which in some ways is the same thing. There’s also a horse made of paper and cardboard and a giant shining Zorb ball, both again well-deployed: serving a clear purpose in the play’s action and aesthetically pleasing enough that I wouldn’t really have minded if they weren’t.
All the parts are multi-roled by four company members, alongside two more performers (Henry Webster and Alex Judd), who provide a live score on the fiddle, flute and keyboard. Their smoothness as an ensemble (directed by Guillaume Pigé), as they catch and swing the props hauled down from above, or twist through each other’s arms and legs, is a pleasure to watch. The characters communicate mostly through mime, although they also occasionally speak to each other in short nonsense sounds, not-quite-a-language. Similarly, their mime isn’t precisely literal – it often lands somewhere between gesture and dance. This nicely opens up imaginative space, so that hints of deeper human experiences – particularly fears around raising and losing a child – are visible inside the familiar narrative action and tropes of the fairy tale plot.
The story of the play has all the elements that makes its genre undeniable. A King and Queen are desperate for a child. They call on the Bluebell Fairy, who gives them some magical tips and tricks, and finally the Queen conceives a baby girl. But the royal family have been cursed by an evil fairy and the princess dies in infancy. So the King and Queen call on the Bluebell Fairy a second time…
Bluebelle encourages thought around what fairy tales do and how they work. In fairy tale world, evil exists and good exists, and they don’t bleed into each other. Evil people do evil things because they are evil. Good people do the right thing because they are good. Evil things happen to good people because they’ve been cursed by someone evil. That means that evil isn’t random; children don’t just die of unexplained causes. In general, I think (I’m no Marina Warner, but let me roll for a minute), consequence is a simple and necessary fact in fairy tale world – they’re archetypal narratives; the king died and then queen died of grief, etc. – but if you follow the chain of consequence backwards it still ends at the states of good and evil: fairy tale characters are a priori good or evil and it’s from that starting point that the stories are set in motion.
I found it interesting that, as against the relatively recent and ongoing popularity of narratives that rehabilitate those evil characters – Maleficent, Cruella, Wicked, Hex at the National Theatre – Bluebelle leans into the old, traditional darkness. The evil fairy is just evil, that’s why she does cruel things. The key perspective of Bluebelle is that of the adult King and Queen, who have to learn how to raise and lose a child. It’s less about the Princess (contra traditional Disney), or the evil fairy (contra recent rehabilitative Disney and others). Sometimes cruel and unfair things happen to people who consider themselves good and by examining and acknowledging that, fairy tale narratives can be the perfect storytelling instrument to reify optimism as a viable and worthy state of being. There are times when that’s a useful story to tell, even or especially to adults: the show can and does go on. Look, here it is, going on beautifully. Isn’t that astonishing? Doesn’t it fill you with joy?
Bluebelle was on at Shoreditch Town Hall 13th-16th January as part of London International Mime Festival. More info here.