The Girl with the Iron Claws is the debut production of The Wrong Crowd, whose vision is to create ‘inventive, joyful, provocative storytelling’ – and certainly there’s much to admire in a show which has its fair share of invention and joy.
The narrative is drawn from a fairy-tale known as ‘Valemon, the White Bear King’, and comes replete with all the tropes which made our childhood reading so deliciously terrifying. There are crones, goblins, kings and princesses; blacksmiths, lost babies and enchanted woods; obstacles to be overcome, and harsh lessons to be learnt.
Ffion Jolly plays Girl, a welcome sight in dungarees and Sarah Lund knitwear, and a corrective to Disney’s latest attempt to sparkle-up their own solitary tomboy princess. Disinclined to remain within the castle walls with her repulsively girlish sisters, she ventures into the forest and encounters a mysterious ring of light, before falling into a bargain making her the child-bride of the white bear king (Joe Darke).
As both king and blacksmith, Paul Sockett brings wit and warmth to the stage, though I was impressed most by his ability to perfectly mimic the opening and closing of a gate with nothing more than the swing of a cast-iron poker and a squeak or two. Laura Evelyn has several plum roles, all of which she plays with admirable lack of vanity.
However, it is not the cast which carries this piece. The performances are generally competent, but too often had a rather undergraduate flavour, with gurning and capering on the one hand and breathless posturing on the other. Rather, it is the design of the set and the use of puppetry which give the show its moments of magic and charm. Rachael Canning as Designer and Puppet Director achieves some remarkable effects: you’d think it impossible, on the presumably scant budget of a new company, to effectively mimic the movements of a great white bear hurtling through a winter forest, but it’s done so effectively – and with hardly more than a pair of white plaster paws, a mask and a fur collar – that I gasped. Laura Evelyn has the task of being a pair of princesses, using a puppet child to mimic her own movements, and then moments later of becoming a hideous goblin queen intent on bedding the young Valeron. The goblin puppetry was rather less successful than the creation of the bear king (perhaps because it was not so simple in its conception), and there was an unfortunate failing of technology which reduced the goblin queen’s booming howl to a Scottish squeak; but none of these detract too much from the great charm of the play’s visual presence.
The last production I reviewed which made use of puppetry and music failed to align the music with the tone of the piece, so that the live performance onstage seemed to jar with the audience experience. Here, the brief musical interludes are perfectly measured: they have a folk flavour, but have just enough dissonance to convey the sense of malice and unease essential to a good fairy-tale, and the cast sings sweetly and well.
The script steers admirably clear of the kind of Angela Carter imagery which only she could pull off, and which others so unwisely try to mimic: its tone is wry and occasionally witty, though now and then rather lazily vernacular.
Altogether, The Girl with the Iron Claws is something much greater than the sum of its parts: for all its failings – some which are fairly notable- it has an irrepressible charm. The Wrong Crowd are currently working on their next production, Hag, which will draw on Slavic legends such as that of the witch Baba Yaga Iron-Legs. I look forward to it.
Read the Exeunt interview with The Wrong Crowd.