I can't remember a better year for soaringly imaginative Christmas shows aimed at the children-of-all-ages market. Following on from the seasonal smash hits at the National, RSC, Royal Court and the Young Vic, the Hampstead Theatre now weighs in with Beasts and Beauties, a wickedly gleeful and gruesome gallimaufry of tales by the Brothers Grimm as reworked by Carol Ann Duffy, dramatised by Tim Supple and Melly Still, and directed by the latter.
The show is a triumph of sophisticatedly rough-and-ready ensemble storytelling, with bags of direct-to-audience narration, witty props lowered down on pulleys and the sense that we are watching a company of players who delight in letting us in on the game of creating illusion. It's typical that the actor who has just played the bloodthirsty Blue Beard vigorously flannels off the dye from his whiskers in full view and checks with the children in the front row that it's all come off.
The yarns range from the elatingly silly to the magically macabre. A grumpy farmer swaps roles for a day with his wife and is so bad at household multi-tasking that he winds up head first in a pot of porridge with a cow on the roof and a screaming baby cradling a half-dead pig. Trotting around in a full skirt and curly false eyelashes, Jason Thorpe makes an adorably solemn cow. The hilarious, narrowly avoided full-frontal nudity in "The Emperor's New Clothes" raises the roof with shrieking delight as only a succession of small, strategically placed objects conceals Jack Tarlton's crown jewels.
Tarlton is also the most terrifying Beast I have ever seen – fanged, slimy, half-naked, his features distorted by the disturbing caul that encases his head. The production also heightens the savage summary justice of stories such as the one in which a jealous wife serves her husband a stew composed of his butchered son – and then suffers a nightmarishly deserved comeuppance when the child, reborn as a bird, reveals her guilt to the townsfolk in an eerie Germanic song.
It's a mistake to have the cast rush around near the end offering the audience imaginary food; embarrassing shades, there, of the Emperor's non-existent finery. In every other respect, though, this is a rumbustiously magical treat.
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