Kneehigh has in some respects become the victim of its own success. The Cornish-based touring company has built a deserved reputation for inventive, evocative stagings of “wonder tales” from various mythologies and folk traditions. Music, movement and visual richness are integrated with more conventional theatrics to produce a dreamlike-yet-true sense of a mythic event that taps into our store of archetypal recognitions and emotional responses. The problem is, for those of us familiar with the company, seeing them do what they normally do is no longer the evening of excitement and magic it once was – and certainly is for other folk.
Here, adapter and director Emma Rice and writer Carl Grose present a version of The Girl Without Hands, the Grimm brothers’ tale no. 31. A poor man makes a deal with the Devil and inadvertently sells him his daughter. Too clean for the Devil to touch her, even after her hands have been cut off, she goes to live in the wilderness, where she is found by a prince who falls in love with her, before war and the Devil’s machinations sunder them once more.
The music Stu Barker weaves through the tale is a kind of junk blues; when you open with a slide-guitar number set at a crossroads, you are ineluctably in the musical territory of Robert Johnson and the narrative constituency of infernal deals. Musician Ian Ross augments the cast of five: Stuart McLoughlin as the Devil, Stuart Goodwin as the father and the prince and Audrey Brisson, Patrycja Kujawska and Éva Magyar who play the central figure at successive points in her tale.
The oddity is that this “feminist folk tale” has a central character who finally speaks her first words six minutes before the end of the two-hour show – and those words are not her own but a reading from the book of her story. This is a version that is by turns grotesque and majestic, which repeatedly cartoons itself yet finds a deeper truth in that caricaturing. It bears the Kneehigh trademark on all moving parts.