It's Grimm up north. Manchester's Library Theatre is presenting Carol Ann Duffy's adaptation of several of the tough moral tales created by the Brothers Grimm. Her taut story-telling has lost none of its bite since she and Tim Supple collaborated on this script for the Young Vic in the 1990s. Into the dark woods we go, following paths of gleaming words that unfold with tremendous energy in Rachel O'Riordan's vivid production.
Anyone turning to the inadequate printed programme to check which tales are included here has to struggle to find this basic information. Besides, it fails to point out that O'Riordan has dropped A Riddling Tale and replaced The Magic Table, The Gold Donkey and The Cudgel in the Sack with a startlingly abbreviated version of Little Red-Cap (better known in this country as Little Red Riding Hood).
The actors take up their positions through windows, fireplace and trap door – larger-than-life figures against the distorted perspective of Gary McCann's evocative set. It establishes the action in a quaint old nursery with moonlit trees both inside and out.
The sequence – which roughly follows the process of growing up, emphasising the rites-of-passage element of the tales – opens with Hansel and Gretel. The production progresses from the children's encounter with a cannibalistic witch through the engaging tale of the golden goose (the bird represented by a shiny watering can), whizzes through the fall and rise of Ashputtel (Cinderella), and the "growing up" of the boy hero of Iron Hans to the disintegration of a marriage in a spun-out version of The Lady and the Lion. The moral of The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage is less clear, thanks to the story rather than the seamless staging.
The excellent ensemble company gets to the heart of the sometimes humorous but more often grisly themes, using the minimum of props but loads of imagination. If Conor Mitchell's score descends too often into a tuneless cacophony, it at least gives the versatile cast opportunity to show off their skills on fiddle, cello, trumpet, clarinet and percussion while Mark Aspinall underscores the narrative at the piano.
A little Grimm goes a long way, however, and absorbing the detail of these colourful but word-packed little plays requires remarkable concentration even when presented with such vigour.
To 23 January (0161 236 7110)Reuse content