It seems we don’t really feel the need for folk tales anymore – perhaps now we look to tabloids, to urban legends courtesy of Buzzfeed and Cracked.com – but there’s no mistaking that very particular blend of pure escapist fantasy and moral warning in ANTLER Theatre’s charming if dissatisfying Where the White Stops.
The familiar narrative of the inquisitive child venturing out into the unknown and very nearly getting eaten before ultimately returning safely home is gently shaken up in this slickly-executed storytelling piece, an affectionately quirky tribute to the genre, with some promisingly refreshing revisions. It’s certainly impressive to see how this young company, already armed with a definitive house style, strive to counter their whimsical, homespun aesthetic with the somewhat darker, bloodier undertones that characterised the Grimm tales before the brothers sanitised them for mass publication.
Crab (Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart) struggles to live contentedly with her family under the shelter of the Great Tree. It’s not long before she gives into her fascination with the White (an endless wintry wasteland where the dreaded Beast roams) and all that might lie beyond it. Not exactly radical in its initial set up, but the uniquely less-than-happy-ending element here (which ANTLER only promisingly touch upon rather than develop) is that it seems our indomitable heroine’s very indomitableness is an eventually self-destructive trait and, as much as this is a story of somewhat Disney-esque companionship, the road Crab is so determined to travel is an inescapably lonely one.
More often than not, Where the White Stops is diligently faithful to the form – the narrative frame set up by some comically incapable storytellers occasionally stumbling into the action to hasten the passage of time or clarify a plot point. Crab’s quest pairs her first with the brilliantly understated Daniela Pasquini’s Half-Armed Carpenter (a strange and fascinating creation of unexpected vocal tics and behavioural oddities) and then deftly conjures an adolescent almost-romance with Wodwo, the mute ‘child of the White’, who, in Nasi Voustas’ hands, is an absurdly loveable indie-film boy-child misfit taken to the fairytale extreme. The story progresses, and we can’t help but settle into (even if we don’t exactly invest in) the lightly-sketched but often delightful world ANTLER offer us, so that the narrator figures lose their sense of purpose, ending up as genuinely disruptive rather than entertainingly interfering.
Whilst the show’s mythology is a jumbled collage of human sacrifice, insatiable monsters and enchanted trees, the real magic comes from the consistently rewarding cast. Where The White Stops as a text is undeniably weak fare, enlivened only by its filmic jump-cutting structure- but the joy of the show is all in the offbeat, downplayed delivery, the deliciously silly physical comedy and the real sense of camaraderie and chemistry between the performers. If the best storytelling theatre embraces grand and utterly grandiose narratives, then ANTLER, with their unmistakeable attention to detail – finding the quietly glorious and uproariously hilarious in minute, intricately crafted moments, silences and glances – are in uncertain territory here.
The vastness of the White, and the vastness of the story, with its various and sometimes unnecessary plot threads, multi-role playing with no ultimate purpose, strands them in a kind of wilderness. Granted, the company are an absolute pleasure to watch, but that doesn’t stop particular sequences being interminable. Shackled to the storytelling form, they go through the contrived motions of adventure/adversity/betrayal/loss that doesn’t quite suit them.
Likewise, it’s difficult to fault Woodcock-Stewart’s central performance as Crab – wide-eyed yet likeably pragmatic – but she has to work doubly hard because the character of Crab isn’t ever satisfactorily developed. As much as her desperation for something other than the White might reflect any natural human desire for exploration and adventure, her ultimately destructive fascination with the unknown is not quite universal or even explicated enough to convince. Polyphonic song is an evocative atmospheric device so overly used that it begins to feel manipulative- a short-cut to emotional affect, which short-changes us not only because the cast are clearly perfectly capable of rousing our emotions: Crab’s unrestrained cry of grief and rage in the play’s final act being a perfect example, an unexpected stab of real pain that comes a little too late.
Whilst it’s admirable that ANTLER have the vivacity and inventiveness to simply play, it all comes across as rather less mature than their previous efforts, until Where the White Stops becomes a journey into the unknown that just doesn’t stray far enough from the safety of home.