March 25, 2014 5:46 pm

Grimm Tales, Shoreditch Town Hall, London – review

Drawing on Philip Pullman’s retellings, this staging has found a fittingly subterranean setting
Simon Wegrzyn as the wolf in 'Grimm Tales'©Tom Medwell

Simon Wegrzyn as the wolf in 'Grimm Tales'

The notion of an immersive staging of fairy tales is unsettling. Who wants to be stuffed into a cage and fattened up ready for eating? Locked in a tower, blinded by thorns or eaten by a wolf? In the event, Philip Wilson’s hugely imaginative production is only immersive in the sense that it wraps the stories around the audience – which is something of relief to those of us who didn’t fancy haggling with witches.

The staging draws on Philip Pullman’s adaptation of the Grimm Tales and, by animating them and having the characters share the narrative voice, reminds us that these are ancient stories first passed on orally. The setting, in the atmospheric maze of underground rooms buried beneath the civic splendour of Shoreditch Town Hall, seems appropriate: these are tales that burrow into dark, fundamental and universal fears of abandonment, betrayal or cruelty.


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And neither Pullman nor Wilson shies away from some of the grislier aspects of the stories: in this version of “Red Riding Hood” both the wee girl and her granny are wolfed down by the lupine intruder and in the very odd “Juniper Tree”, a jealous stepmother beheads her small stepson and serves him up in a stew for his father – even hardcore horror movies might balk at that plot. Though if there is a nagging doubt, it is that the production doesn’t release the real prickling terror that runs through some fairy tales. And because the plays honour the strangeness of the stories by telling them straight, with no interpretation, there is a linear quality to them that runs counter to good drama.

But this is an immensely inventive production. Designer Tom Rogers creates a strange and enchanted subterranean world, strewn with bark and lit by dozens of spangly bulbs and candles. Between stories, the audience passes through halls of mirrors and eerie, recently vacated rooms that hint at other well-known tales: a bed-chamber with seven little beds; a spinning wheel surrounded by straw. The versatile cast deliver the tales swiftly and nimbly, and make eloquent use of simple props – an umbrella becomes a bird.

In a fine ensemble, Simon Wegrzyn stands out firstly as a predatory wolf (whose enthusiasm for little girls seems particularly sinister here) and then as the weird central character of the lesser known “Hans-my-Hedgehog”, a tale of prejudice in which a half-hedgehog-half-boy has to live in a tree, playing the bagpipes. You won’t see that anywhere else in London.

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