FringeReview UK 2018
Seven stories, three directors – Faye Woodbridge, Mimi Goddard, Steven Adams – sashay with Michael James’ music, in a bricolaged set by Adams and Tom Williams. It’s painted by Alison and Michael Williams. Beverley Grover’s lighting passes across violet rays and deep shadows. Margaret Skeet, Ann Atkins and Glenys Stuart provide a range of panto and costumes, and as ever Patti Griffiths’ wigs. Till December 15th.
By 1996 Carol Ann Duffy was already a seasoned playwright – witness her 2015 National Theatre adaptation of Everyman – when The New Vic asks her to treat seven of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Unusually, Andy Supple then dramatized them. It’s a happy collaboration, though this Brighton Little production deliciously takes its spirit and adds spinning plates of its own.
We think we know most of these, but we’re hoping something off-kilter will happen and of course it does, seven times. Seven stories, three directors – Faye Woodbridge, Mimi Goddard, Steven Adams – sashay with Michael James’ perky and motif-nagging music (quoting pop but also Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice), in a brilliantly bricolaged set by Adams and Tom Williams. It’s painted with startling primary and other stripes over everything from backdrop to tables and stacked chairs, by Alison and Michael Williams. Beverley Grover’s lighting passes across violet rays and deep shadows to ensure this is one of the most suggestive sets even BLT have produced.
It’s a quick-change feast, Margaret Skeet, Ann Atkins and Glenys Stuart provide a range of panto and richly-coloured costumes, and as ever Patti Griffiths’ wigs, flambant or thicketed.
Little Red Riding Hood with its comical Wold (Leigh Ward, who produces a tonal feast of voices throughout) charms its bolshie way with Riding Hoodie Nadya Mills who produces the sparkiest morsel ever to deserve at least a few hours in a wolf’s belly, not that this tames her. Helen Schlüter’s a typically anxious rather active Mother, Ann Atkins in her first role a dipsy granny anxious for a tipple. It’s an exuberant retelling, perfectly straight accept the eponymous heroine who really can’t take this wolf thing seriously. Mills is full of attitude and sly fun. Ward’s excellent as the comically-compromised Wolf, full of malign bafflement. Duffy’s realigned the innocence and it works triumphantly here.
Cinderella with a slightly older heroine – ripe for marriage, thus sexually docile – poses different challenges. Fairy godmother’s replaced by Cinderella’s mother’s ghost, a more traditional reading too. Phoebe Cook’s appealing Cinderella takes inspiration from her mother’s ghost voice (Josie Durand), a pair of doves who get nasty with her step-sisters, and tell the camp prince (Will Watson) the truth about those blood-seeping shoes. Ward and Gerry Wicks are magnificently Ugly Sisters who apart from pedically challenged cuts endure those nastily pecking doves as a kind of retribution. Tess Gill as fiendish Stepmother is great fun (her dance-off feet on fire is something) Harry Atkinson’s hapless father never doing quite the right thing is almost sympathetic. The Prince though is far less interested in girls than boys. There may be trouble ahead.
There’s a great set of dance scenes, where much of the ensemble cavort or galumph about, on the diminutive stage. As ever it seems to open up and it’s a remarkable feat getting all eighteen actors to move with such.
Hansel and Gretel is relatively straight, Schlüter again a Mother but hard-bitten and wholly different in Griffiths’ wig as Wicks is the guilt-ridden father. Flo Unwin makes an attractive upfront Gretel Watson returns now suitably infantilised as Hansel, in a fine double-act with more revels in the set in the gingerbread House. Taken farther and farther out, they’re finally abandoned when the breadcrumbs trail is eaten up. Lily Sitzia makes a chirpily useful Bird. Atkins relishes the Witch role, which is the most fun, roasting tonight as it were. In this version the mother doesn’t have a change of heart (or double as the Witch) as in Humperdinck’s opera. she just dies, probably of starvation; so that’s neat.
The silliest story is The Golden Goose, though everyone acquits themselves with a riotous aplomb to close the first half and it’s good to have a slightly lesser-known tale treated. Ward’s Dummling is a delight as the idiot son whose kindness to magical old man Wicks gifts him the luck to find a golden goose – delicious prop this, but everyone who touches the feathers or another person who touches them, gets stuck, and Dummlung in a skirling accent ends up leading five people including Mills, Cook, (landlord’s daughters) Sitzia, Suzanne Buist, and church prelates Schlüter and Ivor Gaber round and round. This cheers the cheerless Princess, Unwin and her father the King, Atkins, who seems to perceive no trouble in rendering the poor girl up to Dummling and making him his heir; because he made her laugh.
There’s much physical theatre here, making up for an energetic but uneventful story. Stephen Evans and Dug Godfrey look on as bemused parents, and Rosalind Caldwell and Esmé Bird hard-done-by sisters as well they might be.
Gill is at the heart of a riddle posed to the audience by Gaber at the interval.
Rumpelstiltskin’s a weird tale. Everyone but the poor Princess is greedy and she receives no agency from a benign source, only a nastily bargaining one. And what she wins, survival, is pretty grim.
Gaber’s the eponymous anti-hero, who helps out a poor Miller’s daughter. Godfrey’s boast about his daughters beauty and prowess goad the King (Wicks again) into not only wanting to possess her but her powers of turning straw to gold which she can’t do. Cook’s again excellent as a Patient Griselda type with no-one but the eponymous anti-hero to drive a bargain with. She defeats him and his demand for her first-born after having got him to save her skin. She’s altogether environed by nasty mean, the man who married her had offered her to weave gold or die, twice. You’d think Duffy might have made a little more of this. Not too much, but unlike the Little Red Riding Hoodie, there’s less attitude than a subliminal pathos. Here the actors collar audience members into giving names.
Snow White, where Sitzia shines is one of the best. Atkin as evil stepmother, Buist as Mirror, excel too. Durrand as the all-too-brief Mother and of course everyone else it seems as towering dwarves relish the physicality in-jokes on height (clearly some are towering). Bird, Caldwell, Evans, Godfrey, Mills, Unwin, Watson ad Ward as a useless Hunter: the poor man fails to kill Snow White but apart from saving his skin does nothing else for her either. Again Duffy and Supple play a straight bat and it’s BLT who indulge some of the silliness to edge this into memorable theatre.
The cruelty of these stories are rooted in a matter-of-fact banality of evil and good, a kind of radical forgetting of some of their context, so you get shorn-off notions of peasant starvations, half-glimpsed folk memories. It’s the world of Mother Courage with the din of battle faintly receded.
There’s far more than gender reassigning to ensure the last tale, The Magic Table, The Gold-Donkey and the Cudgel in the Sack is a stand-out. An old Tailor, Atkinson, has three daughters (Sitzia, Unwin, Mills) who feed a goat. This goat – Bird, who’s a superb physical actor here and elsewhere – tells them she’s fed enough but when asked by the father says she ate nothing. The daughters banished, he finds the Goat says exactly the same to him. Too late.
But Sitzia’s become a Joiner (Godfrey her Master) who knurls so well she’s given a magic table that fills with food. Miracle, but nasty landlord Ward swaps it for a ordinary one after she’s obliged him kindly when he was short-muttoned. Same happens to the second, apprenticed to a Miller (Schlüter) and a magic donkey – Caldwell a delicious turn – that ‘schitzen and spitzen’ spouts gold from both orifices, but of course poor Unwin’s found it’s very ordinary ‘schitzen and spitzen’. It’s only when Master Turner Buist gives Mills a magic cudgel that tables are literally turned and all’s resolved. This tripartite motif’s something Duffy celebrates and selects from the Tales.
The riddle’s resolved and ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’ demands audience participation.
It’s not fair to expect some Angela Carter/Emma Rice treatment of what’s meant as family and children’s fare, though some lovely radical touches suggest Duffy might have gone further. But she’s authentic to her source, and she and Supple decide it’s best to be slightly not overtly subversive, as indeed these tales were.
They’re particularly on-point with the opening two, and last with those ever-brown scatological jokes. The company spice the rest. ‘We did think of killing the duck, but reprieved her’ I heard one ASM comment of a tiny detail in Hansel and Gretel. It’s as fluid and fun as that.
This is as ever an exuberant Christmas production, and a miracle of compression, blocking, set-design and ensemble acting skills. They’re so good it’s impossible to pull out particular performances though from Mills onwards – who clearly enjoys her attitude – the acting, physical and vocal, touches the sub-zero outside and warms a filament. As Landor once put it, warm your hands before the fire of life. One of its primal layers awaits.