Theatre Review: The Grimmer the better
Wednesday 10 December 1997
Young Vic, London
There were solid phalanxes of schoolchildren, a smattering of teachers, my three daughters (aged 10 downwards), and me. Just about the same ratio of infant to adult as there are women to men at a Chippendales gig. But, had you reversed those proportions, I believe the sense of wonder, stimulation and valuably uneasy fun in the audience would have been just as intense. To call Tim Supple's production of excellent children's theatre is a partial truth only; the production is superb theatre (full stop).
Three years ago, the protective and restraining bandages usually wrapped round stage versions of these canny, cruel and comic stories were exuberantly ripped away by the same team of director, adapter (Carole Ann Duffy) and composer (Adrian Lee, whose music, performed live on a most unprovincial range of instruments - mbira, dulcimer, 'ud, hurdy-gurdy - once again gives the right estranging sonic texture and pulverisingly percussive punctuation to the event). Gory, elemental, at once fiercely knockabout and finely nuanced, this new batch of dramatised stories - staged in the round on a wooden disc set on a wobbly-making earth floor - offers the perfect antidote to the dismal imaginative poverty of Disney. They understand that the pretty is often the enemy of the beautiful and that a show like the Dominion's Beauty and the Beast insults young audiences by asking nothing from them but bovine submission.
Here you are invited into a joyous act of collaboration as the company, using a thrillingly terse theatrical vocabulary, create a world where, say, the Step Mother in Snow White can be played by a handsome, strapping, un-drag-like black actor and be split into two, her wicked self a spindly, wizened hag who emerges from between his legs. "D'you suppose its jam?" enquired my six-year-old worriedly as the Queen licked her plate after a meal of what she thinks is Snow White's liver and lungs.
It's a world where the glimpses of loveliness are always unbalanced by the baleful, as in a magical sequence where Linda Kerr Scott's stick-thin Rumpelstiltskin pedals furiously at the spinning wheel with deformed feet evidently encased in flapping gloves. As she does so, the bundles of straw that have to be transformed are thrown in relay by the cast off the stage and back up the aisles while, in contrary motion, a vast bucking snake of glittering gold net is tossed mid-air around the stage like an unnervingly dubious travesty of a beautiful cordon sanitaire.
If justice in these stories is often violent in its righteousness, this impression is modified by the way certain tales show ne'er-do-wells outwitting the virtuous. When, in Brother Scamp, St Peter gives the title character a bag into which he can magically spirit anything he wants, he does not anticipate that, by chucking it over the Pearly Gates and then making a wish, Scamp will be able to bypass the stiff entry requirements for Heaven. My children loved this production; so will yours; so will you.
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