Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 6th December, 2015
These dramatisations of Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptations of Brothers Grimm stories are linked together by having the cast meeting up in the middle of a forest to spend the night sharing the tales. Who these people are we don’t know but they share a common purpose. They gather downstage to peer into a large storybook in order to announce the title of each story. Narrating in unison they are effective, with impeccable timing and a sort of hive mind when it comes to intonation and expression. Narrating as individuals is less consistent – some are stronger than others but such is the democratic approach of director James David Knapp, everyone gets a fair crack at it.
First up is Hansel and Gretel, a stark story of willful child neglect and cannibalism. The leads (Guy Jack and Lindsey Davis) are lively enough but their evil mother could do with being a bit louder if she is to live up to the narrators’ description. Strings of lights descend to suggest the witch’s edible cottage. It’s rather pretty but I don’t like the collective oohs and ahhs from the cast – it’s like having canned laughter telling you when to laugh.
As story follows story (The Golden Goose is funny; The Magic Table, The Gold Donkey and the Cudgel in the Sack has its moments) it becomes apparent that everything is being delivered at the same leisurely pace. This helps with clarity and focus but can give rise to problems with pacing – it takes ages for a knife to pass from hand to hand across the stage and what should be quick and snappy interjections tend to slow down the thrust of the storytelling. Why these storytellers in the middle of the woods wear pyjamas and dressing gowns escapes me.
All that being said, this is a pleasing production overall. Phil Rea and Ed Brewster are enjoyable as the ugly stepsisters of Ashputtel (Cinderella) and Dave Hill brings weight and import to a range of roles. It’s difficult to single out cast members from the ensemble – the programme doesn’t attribute roles – but as a group they work well, like a well-oiled machine. It’s a good-looking production: Keith Harris’s set has stylized trees and grand staircases, and it’s lit by James Booth to accentuate mood – A lively swordfight between a princess and a dragon lady picks up the pace before the final romantic reunion of that princess with her prince; these are lovely moments where the director uses theatrical technology to enhance the storytelling, but there is a story about a bird, a mouse and a sausage (of all things) that just doesn’t bring anything to the party.
I think perhaps a smaller performance space or just having the ensemble group closer together would speed things up and make the throwaway lines sharper and snappier, but it’s good to see these stories still have power to work on our imaginations and strike at our humanity both directly and on a symbolic level. An alternative to the glitz and glamour of pantomime, this Grimm Tales amuses rather than enchants.