REVIEW: Grimm Tales at Playbox Theatre

The princess murders her husband in The Three Snake Leaves at Playbox.

Steve Sutherland reviews Grimm Tales by Playbox Theatre at The Dream Factory, Warwick.

A VICIOUS beast is disembowelled, two innocent children beheaded, a faithful servant turned to stone. Then there’s the lecherous frog, a good prince buried alive, a bad princess brought back from the dead. A snake is sliced up, some ravens

sooth-say, three fierce giants get to grumble, an extremely wicked witch is turned into a donkey then beaten to death, a songbird’s heart cut out and swallowed… whole… twice!

If you like your seasonal spookfest to linger, Playbox Theatre’s latest production is well up your dark alley. Pitched perfectly between Halloween passing and panto giddying up, Grimm Tales is based on author Philip Pullman’s interpretations of the famous ancient Germanic fairy tales gathered in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm.

Beautifully staged in a dusty atmosphere redolent of a long-deserted Victorian Music Hall, Playbox’s five talon-picked stories unfold as told by the characters themselves, a smart narrative device that both animates the original text while simultaneously leaving it ‘text-y’, if you get my drift.

The intention here is avoid a warm-blooded, bodice-heaving adaption a la Disney and position the action where it dwells most hauntingly, in the dim gas lamp half-light between myth and meaning, words and reality, the vibe of ghostly jocularity enhanced by a handful of whistling-past-the-graveyard cheeky cockney sing-alongs.

Drawing from a time when scaring kids witless with stories of

omnipresent evil was widely adopted as a warning to keep them safe from a world writhing with danger, directors Mary King and Stuart McGill have captured their talented young ensemble in a magic lantern, their charges trapped in a nether world, all white faces, linen bloomers, Bowlers, braces, bustles and Robert Smith’s hair. Medieval, Music Hall, Modern Day… to set the drama in fictional stasis suggests that Reynardines, Jack The Rippers, Sweeny Todds and Osama Bin Ladens lurk eternally in the sh(ad)ows, ever ready to pounce.

These are strange tales, of course, sometimes absurd — a fact which doesn’t escape the ensemble who take the odd opportunity to protest the action through mime — a shrug here, a hammy missed prompt there, little laughs that suggest, though they be slaves to their roles, these actors aren’t above a nod and a wink to the audience, even if delivered from six feet under.

Our Saturday matinee crowd flowed from the theatre as if emerging from a dream, shielding their eyes against the setting winter sun, still clinging to the dubious comfort of darkness.

And we all lived happily ever after…

…Until we died.

A trick or treat for all the family.