Manchester has become a rich beneficiary of Carol Ann Duffy’s powers of retelling old stories. It’s five years since The Manchester Carols premiered in the city, and the Poet Laureate’s latest collaboration with director Melly Still offers us a reminder of the simple wonders of a tale well told – without characterisation, without Disneyfication, devoid of time and context.
The spectacle is fast and incredibly spare: no links, no applause, between the suite of eight tales, with a cast of a mere seven playing children, adults, animals and scene-shifters. Their accomplishment of this marathon undertaking is a triumph in itself. Props contribute to the same excellent aesthetic. Sheets double as rats, babies and rivers and in “The Squire’s Bride”, the bloated squire is tricked into marrying a horse (Emily Wachter and Meline Danielewicz) with bra cups for ears.
This is the pantomime element – and it brought the house down – though the overall impression is far darker. We should expect nothing less from Duffy, who worked with Still on retelling Grimm – the writer who gave us a horror story in “Hansel and Gretel”. This is a more muscular type of darkness, though: from the child mentally tortured to the point of invisibility by his stepfather, to the demonised troll child whose custodian is urged to “beat him till the blood comes running from his back.” And then there is the contemporary reference which chills the spine: the grainy CCTV video images of children, who have just been lured away from their parents by a piper and led into streets outside the theatre, beamed on to drop-down screens.
The debate on how squeamish 21st- century parents should be about the dark side of fairy tales cannot be confined to this space. Duffy, who remembers the effect of the Moors murders and the disappearance of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, says the story always find a way through the darkness. To which it might be added that “Little Red Riding Hood” was about the danger of strangers in our midst. And that Harry Potter hardly found things to be a walk in the park.
Still, not everyone would agree with the promotional pitch for the show as “an unforgettable evening for everyone with an imagination aged eight to 108.” For the more squeamish parents, there is the alternative of Duffy’s The Tear Thief currently running in the Royal Exchange Studio. But all of us, young and old, really need a little darkness.
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