NODA Review of Philip Pullman's
We are all children at heart. Even those who claim not to be will have difficulty denying the fascination they found in their formative years supplied by fairy stories. The tales of the Brothers Grimm along with the less in your face Hans Christian Anderson and Andrew Laing and his coloured fairy books are still widely read today and contribute to the future adult psyche of children the world over. I confess to holding some of the Grimm Tales at arm's length due to many instances of what might, from one or more of the character's perspective at least, not to fit with natural justice or their subjection of characters to penalties far removed from the misdemeanour they may have committed. They are strange and unworldly and therein lies their appeal. Tales are, by definition, always concerned with imaginary incidents as opposed to stories which can relate to both fact and fiction.
Justine Sutcliffe had assembled a fine troupe of grotesques. Another appeal of tales is that, especially in the hands of the Grimm Brothers, we are not asked to be empathetic to any of the strange people we are asked to encounter.
The first offering, “Little Red Riding Hood” was a fitting start to the six tales presented. Everyone knows the tale and is in no doubt that the wolf will get his comeuppance. As with all the tales the five performers brought their own brands of humour to the piece. Taking careful note of their close proximity to the audience seated all around them they encouraged us to watch with wide-eyed wonder.
“Hans-my -Hedgehog” followed. I did not know this tale, obviously, it was one the brothers Grimm recommendations for more mature readers. Again it perfectly engaged the concentration of the audience who were drawn in by the unexpected twists and turns of the plot. Once more we all knew where it was heading, but it was the route by which this occurred that held us in thrall.
Justine Sutcliffe ensured all her actors moved with confidence about the small playing area in every one of the six tales. By the time we had seen the second we knew exactly what the acting style was. I was impressed by the amount of opportunity for personal ingenuity she had quite rightly delegated to her cast. All the players were at ease with their roles and anxious to get the audience involved. “Hansel and Gretel” was the final tale in the first half. This was splendid. How the audience laughed to see the wicked witch consumed by fire. Again we knew it was coming but it was still cathartic and deeply satisfying to our understanding of the way things should be or could be.
“The Frog King” hopped on to open the second half. Distasteful at first, princesses sleeping with amphibians! Yet it mellowed with the slimy creature eventually transformed into a handsome prince and all was happy ever after. “The Three Snake Leaves” was another tale I wasn't familiar with. This was performed with precision by the four actors.
The actors played with 'confidence ... [and] ease with their roles' and given
'opportunity for personal ingenuity'
Finally, the tale of “Faithful Johannes” brought our exploration of the darker side of the tales to an end. This was again performed very well. All the players wringing every ounce of humour from the peculiar events. Deception, trickery, evil and implausible happyish congruences ran like a stream through all these tales.
It was a thrilling experience to see something so different presented in such an original way. The in the round staging was used to wonderful effect with the false bottomed bed making its presence felt in all the tales. I wondered how deep it was at times. It is amazing what a simple illusion can achieve! The puppets were well managed and being so close to the audience were scary. Is it odd that a piece of cloth on a string held by someone yet announced as a poisonous snake can be as troubling as the real thing when dangled six inches from your face. This is the power of the theatre at its most effective.
In conclusion, I quote from Justine’s final sentence in her synopsis. This was a play with “a healthy disregard for our characters joys and sorrows.” There you have it. But what an enjoyable show this disregard gave birth to. I won’t name names as every member of the cast was as good as each other. But I will give you all a bag of my special enchanted beans to share among you next time I have the pleasure of coming to the Hippodrome. Thank you for your hospitality. That is two winning raffle tickets in a row now. Our esteemed District Councilor, Andy, will be asking me to fill in a tax return form soon I suspect. I look forward to “The Kitchen Sink” in February, obligingly beginning its run after the NODA awards dinner which takes place on February 8th. See you there, but no naughty witches or mutant toads (although TAODS are very welcome) on your table please, Justine and David!