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Grimm Tales
Published on Thursday, 12 July 2012

3 starsUnderground Venues, Theatre
4, 9 Jul, 10:15pm-11:15pm; 13 Jul, 9:00pm-10:30pm; 17 Jul, 4:30pm-5:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

The Grimm brothers’ famous fairytales rewritten by Carol Ann Duffy, then transplanted to the age of cabaret?  It sounds like it might be a remix too far.  But, as it turns out, there’s a real depth to the Almost Famous theatre company’s interpretation of these stories; the four short fairytales fit well together, entertainingly linked by a haughty, decadent, cigarette-toting host.

The 1930’s Berlin theme worked well, about half of the time.  It was at its most interesting in the tale of Hansel and Gretel, which was given a political makeover according to Nazi canon – with the virtuous Hansel spending his imprisonment reading Mein Kampf, and the Soviet anthem playing in the background as the wicked witch revealed her plan.  A momentary experience of what theatre would be like in a fascist state, it was deeply disconcerting, and lent an electric twinge of real-world menace to the darkness of Grimms’ fairytale.

But Hansel and Gretel is the only one of the four pieces which truly explores this promising concept, and I felt its potential could have been exploited far more.  For example, we’re told at the start of the show that the actors’ colleagues have “disappeared”, but there’s no apparent concern for their fate.  And I’m sorry, but all the cast desperately need to spend a few hours listening to someone who actually is German – I’m ready to forgive a weak attempt at an accent, but some vowels were mangled so preposterously they sounded like characters out of ’Allo ’Allo.

Amidst a large cast, James McCready stood out pretty much whenever he was on stage.  As the king in Rumpelstiltskin, resplendent in a blow-up crown, his cheerfully vacant characterisation showed a keen awareness of the foolishness of it all.  Later, playing Hansel, he conveyed the tragedy of the children abandoned in the forest with a deep sense of pathos – and I loved everything he did in his more minor roles, even just when he was hand-jiving in the background.  But he needs to be careful, at moments like those; it really wasn’t him I was supposed to be looking at right then, and his antics too often stole the show.

Other highlights included a witless, wide-eyed Little Red Riding Hood, who did a fine job of narrating her own tale.  The ugly sisters from Aschenputtel – the story we’d call Cinderella – brought a hint of vacuous celebrity to their perfectly-choreographed routine.  Yet some other ideas didn’t quite work for me: the sexually-predatory Riding Hood wolf was more repellent than disturbing, and casting Rumpelstiltskin as an Irish leprechaun felt a little lazy, given that it’s a German story and we’re notionally in Berlin.

All in all, there’s a lot of good work here, and plenty of fresh ideas to keep the interest high.  It could benefit from a little more focus on the time and place it’s meant to be set in – 1933, the dying days of the Weimar Republic, should be a perfect match for the lurking horror of each of the fairytales.  But it’s a strong showing from these Salford-based students… and they left me with plenty to think about, after the curtain fell.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Buxton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.