Don’t expect much in the way of Grimm subject matter from The Devil’s Purse. Contrary to its marketing as ‘A Fairytale for Grown ups’, the Crick Crack Club make a marked departure from edgy retellings of late for a show with a disarmingly folksy appeal. Their softer approach to storytelling feels refreshing, especially in Fringe theatre where one can’t move for gritty Little Red Riding Hoods and other poorly executed Angela Carter spin-offs. Instead there’s an attention to the heritage of the tales told tonight: many of the stories are relayed by characters upholding the very same oral storytelling tradition of our narrator, Dominic Kelly.
Another vital element of the show which sets The Devil’s Purse so far aside from its contemporaries is the beautiful soundtrack by Bridget Marsden (violin) and Leif Ottoson (accordion). Musicians who seem completely at ease on the stage, they have a sparkling chemistry both interacting with one another and with their score. This is the strongest bid for immersion in the fairytale world: long-held notes and eerie strings melt into the air, symbolising the unseen presence of Themselves. This mysterious Other species goes by many names: Themselves, The Gentry Below, marrying folklore from different cultures to create a continuity of similar tales.
It shouldn’t be a damning factor that the soundtrack is so good, although in an evening of storytelling you’d hope that the music would play second fiddle (I’m not sorry) to the narrative. To Kelly’s credit, he is an entirely welcoming and gentle narrator. Sitting in his company within the smaller space of the Theatre Royal’s Studio is akin to gathering in a friend’s flat or meeting for a yarn and a pint in an old tavern, so reverent is Kelly of his subject material. However, unlike an evening spent in a tavern, Kelly’s sense of performance does not reflect the increasing drama of the piece. His everyman Jack is a completely believable figure, equally clean-cut is his childhood sweetheart Mary. The small motifs of tucking hair behind an ear or slumping his hands into his pockets creates Kelly’s hapless protagonists succinctly. Where the performance falls is with the introduction of the arch-villain, the Devil himself.
I never thought I’d find myself saying I expected more from Satan, but Kelly’s performance was far too soft for a Prince of Darkness. Yes, his flowing coat is swept to and fro, but other mimes seem tame and too close to Jack’s mere mortal movement. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as noticeable without the marked difference in the music: as soon as the gates of Hell open, Marsden and Ottoson conjure up the brimstone and fire from their instruments. Unfortunately it is a lot harder to match the immediate shift in tone that a score can achieve in a new bar. Kelly is still a formidable performer, but here is where the cracks in his multi-rolling capacities have the potential to show.
In terms of the script, the narrative devices slot together as neatly and satisfyingly as a Russian doll. The redemption arch offered up to Jack is a nice touch and marks a departure from the expected ending that the brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault have taught us to anticipate. The temptation Jack faces from drink is not milked for a patronising morality tale and instead takes interesting turns that incorporate superstition and become somewhat reminiscent of Arabian Nights’ premise. Still, it does seem as if the piece could easily become an audio play, in that there’s not really much in the way of visuals needed. Sure, we have the occasional mime, but the allowance for extended musical riffs to mark breaks between the stories and the stillness of many characters (the downside to having four plots which each contain their own storyteller) means that the stage does seem redundant in this production. Whilst there are notable differences in the stage direction concerning the plotting out of the spaces the story inhabits, none of these spaces are explored enough to differentiate them from the last.
It will be interesting to see how The Devil’s Purse grows with further performances, for now however it doesn’t quite feel fully formed. Just as Jack loses his fear of wandering into the dark and into the path of unknown circumstances, this show needs to explore its world. A little help from The Other People could help to really polish this production.
The Devil’s Purse was on at York Theatre Royal. For more information, click here.