Annie Siddons’ version of Rapunzel (first performed by Kneehigh in 2006), draws out much of the wildness in the tale of a long haired heroine’s search for freedom, from all-consuming vines to a city gone feral from hardship. Here in Nik Partridge’s production that fierce, untamed spirit is celebrated and magnified, inviting the audience into a strange world that promises play as much as it threatens danger.
Immediately creating this weird wonderland to house the twisted tale is Rosanna Vize’s set, whose wild wood is created less from greenery (though plastic leaves and incandescent flowers are scattered across the stage) but more from a collection of clashing colours, bold objects and exposed structures which look like a vaporwave video and fancy dress party got together to make something German and experimental. The initial set is delicious enough on its own, but soon enough it is filled with powder pink wigs and giant foam animal heads and royal families fond of clashing patterns, in a way that mirrors the kaleidoscopic view of life and love that drives the play, a carnival forever threatening to plunge into nightmarishness but pulling back to strange glory.
This is a balancing act that exists throughout the play – like many of the best children’s shows it trusts its young audience, with moments of real danger, real grief, and real uncertainty. Its villains often have motivations that extend beyond an easily dismissed hunger for power, and characters are often reprieved without being thoroughly redeemed, censured without being thoroughly condemned. This embracing of greater nuance and higher stakes makes the show all the more gripping. This means that, while it is frequently funny, it relies less on constant humour than many Christmas shows, more likely to induce an infectious grin than a belly laugh, from the antics of its energetic cast or little directorial flourishes.
Samantha Sutherland is a beguilingly hyperactive and forceful presence as a Rapunzel whose emotions explode out of her body while the rest of the cast slip between characters. Perhaps most delightful is Martin Bonger, one moment gambolling about in the unnatural costume of a helpful boar (implied to be a wild transformation of Rapunzel’s father), the next slinking about as a Welsh gangster who seems to have crept in from New Wave cinema, while still returning to play The Duke with a sense of powerful and overwhelming grief. This multi-roling is reflective of the playfulness in the show – there are so many moments that delight and surprise, but as every an action movie that has used Blue Monday in its trailer can attest I am a sucker for a fight choreographed in time to music and the one in Rapunzel’s second half is one of the best I’ve ever seen – even before its inspired use of a ‘Warning Graphic Violence’ sign.
The beating heart of a Christmas show is so often its music, and here it is a heart that is as wild and beautiful as the rest, weaving smoothly into the action while being fantastic in its own right (I really want to buy the album!). Composer David Ridley has put together a score that feels cohesive while hopping between genres, weaving from jazzy noodlings to rocky thrashing to This is the Kit-esque folky pop bops.
The driving tunes, the witty staging, and a sense of both care and energy from the cast makes this feel like a chaotic rollercoaster that whips the air out of your lungs while never threatening to fly off the tracks. A production to scream in delight to.
Rapunzel runs at the egg, Bath until 12th January 2020. More info here.