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One of the rituals of Christmas is that the same handful of stories tends to come round year after year. But several theatre companies have gone the extra furlong this year and found less familiar fairytales. And at the heart of each of these stories is a motherless girl on the cusp of growing up – reminding us how common such a predicament must have been in the days before modern obstetrics, and how perilous that passage from childhood to adulthood could be for a girl alone.
The excellent Kneehigh Theatre Company tackles Rapunzel in a vibrant staging (at BAC in Battersea) that not only looks and sounds great, but smells good too. The audience sits on bales of straw around a raised, slatted stage (the gaps between the slats allowing all kinds of mischief to take place). Bunches of dried herbs hang from the ceiling; a lute strums; there is a faint whiff of cinnamon in the air.
We are in rural Italy for a telling of the tale that writer Annie Siddons has stitched together from sources including Grimm and Calvino and that, with its depiction of a divided kingdom, of sons and daughters lost and found, puts you in mind of Shakespeare. Rapunzel is an abandoned baby, raised by a wise woman and herbalist, Mother Gothel, who imprisons the girl when she realises she is growing up and is sure to leave. Excessive love holds Rapunzel captive. Her rescuer is a prince, also loved to distraction by his father: a fact that breeds jealousy in his twin brother and leads to chaos in the kingdom.
Emma Rice’s joyous production appears rough-edged and easy-going, but is in fact tightly disciplined and precisely choreographed. Performers whiz under the stage on wheeled trolleys, slide down a fireman’s pole to make an entrance, conduct slapstick fights and take turns to play live music. Rapunzel’s tower is a raised platform that becomes a swing to suggest the giddiness of desire when she meets her prince. Mike Shepherd plays both dame (Mother Gothel) and baddie (evil Prince Paulo) and Paul Hunter gives a lovely comic performance, trying repeatedly to leave the story. This is vintage Kneehigh.
Rapunzel is helped in her journey by a wild boar, and a pig with hidden depths also features in The Enchanted Pig, the Young Vic’s show. This theatre is famous for its pioneering Christmas family shows and this year’s offering is certainly no exception: it is an opera. Alasdair Middleton’s libretto, with vivid, atmospheric music by Jonathan Dove, draws on a Romanian fairytale to tell the curious story of the princess who, fate decrees, must marry a pig. Again the story has echoes – of Lear, of Bluebeard, among others – and again, journey’s end lies in a proper understanding of selfless love.
Flora submits to her fate and marries her pungent groom, only to discover that he is a spellbound prince (beast by day, man by night – plenty for psychoanalysts there). In order to free him from his spell, she must travel the galaxy, wear out three pairs of iron shoes and discover that love is more complex, messy and lasting than girlish notions suggest.
Caryl Hughes makes a lovely and sweet-voiced Flora, complemented by Rodney Clarke’s rich, bass baritone as the boar. Nuala Willis is a splendidly nasty witch – again driven by excessive love. Dick Bird’s design and John Fulljames’s production use the whole scope, height and depth of the theatre and deploy light beautifully to catch the mysterious, wild feel of the tale. The production is overlong (too much for really small children) and the comedy doesn’t always come across. Not an easy watch, then – but a very rewarding one.
Fathers don’t come out of these tales well, and the same is true in Spangleguts, London Bubble’s Christmas show (at the Albany, south London). Writer and director Jonathan Petherbridge turns to a 16th-century Italian folk tale, “The Crystal Casket”, for the inspiration for this story, in which a widowed farmer, marrying again, fails to notice his new wife’s jealousy of his adolescent daughter. Soon the wife has disposed of the daughter – she thinks. But the girl survives and finds herself living with the fairies, who rename her “Spangleguts”.
Again the story recalls familiar tales, particularly Snow White, as the stepmother repeatedly tries to poison the young woman. London Bubble, a company known for imaginative, physical work, fields funny, clumsy fairies, a beautiful and engaging heroine (Nicole Charles) and a splendidly haughty queen (Simon Startin). The story is too rambling, though, and while the staging works hard to pull it together, it certainly lost some children’s interest the night I was there.
Jealousy, foolish love and possessive love run like fine silk threads through all these stories – timeless cautionary tales all on the difficulties of parenting and of growing up, of loving wisely and of letting go.
‘Rapunzel’, BAC, London, SW 11. Tel +44 20 7223 2223.
‘The Enchanted Pig’, Young Vic, London, SE1. Tel +44 207 922 2922.
‘Spangleguts’, Albany Theatre, London, SE8. Tel +44 20 8692 4446.