Once upon a time there was a storyteller who loved the traditional folklore of the Brothers Grimm so much that he set about retelling their famous fables – banishing the Disney gloss and restoring the original darker edge. Now these retellings have moved from page to stage in a highly imaginative and immersive theatrical adventure.
From the moment you feel the uneven crunch of wood chips under your feet and your eyes start to adjust to the dusky glow of the sepia lighting, you realise that this is no ordinary trip at the theatre. Walking up the narrow staircase, there are paintings and portraits all around: but nothing is quite what it seems at first glance.
Take the rural, pastoral setting in a painting by Constable. A fine English idyll… until you notice that there’s also a UFO hovering alongside those fluffy clouds. The lady in that portrait looks rather stern. Eeugh, and is that blood dripping down her cheek? Then there’s the Victorian family portrait of proud pater, mater and children. On closer inspection, you’ll see that the father’s arms are position for cradling – but there’s no infant. Hang on a minute, the child has escaped from the painting and is sitting cheekily on the outside of the picture.
If this is immersive theatre, then you are certainly plunged under its spell from the outset. The magic unfolds all around, from a cascading arch of upside down chairs, defying gravity in an arty installation worthy of a Turner prize, to a host of glimmering knick-knacks and trinkets, hanging tantalisingly from the ceiling.
There are six stories waiting to be told – Thousandfurs, The Three Little Men in the Woods, Frog Prince or Iron Heinrich, Faithful Johannes, Hansel and Gretel, and The Goose Girl at the Spring – during the two-hour plus experience. The audience are invited – at the behest of one of the actors who will holler “Come! Follow me!” – on an amble through a seemingly intricate of rooms, corridors and open spaces, stomping along wooden staircases and creaking floorboards, before settling down on a bench to hear a story.
As the actors mingle with the audience, there’s a sense of eerie anticipation before each story begins. My 9-year-old son made the mistake of jokingly picking up the basket that belonged to Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother, asking “Oooh, what’s for lunch?” She didn’t utter a word of reply, but eyeballed him with a steely glare that would make Cruella De Vil quake in her boots.
Although the original stories are over a hundred years old (the Brothers Grimm published their first collection in 1812), there’s familiarity in the stock-in-trade of beautiful princess, noble princes and wicked stepmothers, while their humans emotions such as jealousy, betrayal, lovalty, love are timeless. In a nod to the storybook origins, the actors sometimes say their line, then add “she said” or “he said”, which helps to remind the audience that they are mere tales.
The performances are polished, and the sets are a triumph, with so much all around to inspect that audiences are in danger of getting neck strain. The props are inventive and unexpected, too. When a spell is cast on the jealous stepsister in The Three Little Men in the Woods, a frog jumps out of her mouth every time she speaks – the ‘frogs’ in question being green latex gloves filled with water that deftly manage to create the slimy jumpiness of a reptile, with each spewed frog landing on the ground with a suitably satisfying splat.
The big question for families is just how scary are these Grimm Tales? I must admit that Joe was quite nervous when he saw the posters (which are admittedly darkly ominous – something about that glossy fringe and those bewitching eyes) and protested “It says for ‘brave’ children. I’m not brave at all.“ But actually he loved it, and wants to go again!
As for the stories themselves, there’s certainly some despicable characters and, alas, stepmothers and witches don’t do much to dismantle their poor reputation, but the stories do share a strong sense of morality and good triumphing over evil which is ultimately reassuring.
Some of the reasoning of the characters can seem perplexing, too, for example, when the King and Queen are so impressed by Faithful Johannes’ steadfast fidelity that they agree to cut off their own children’s heads, and the Frog Prince’s servant Iron Heinrich goes to extremes by having his heart wrapped in iron because he fears he will die of a broken heart after his master goes missing – but then again there are plenty of strange goings-on in Harry Potter, The Hobbit and the like. It’s all part of suspending your disbelief.
Of course, not every character manages a Happy Ever After ending, but there is still a positive message in each tale that goodness and honesty prevails, coupled with a satisfying sense of comeuppance for the baddies.
Why go? To test your mettle and see whether you are brave enough to venture off “into the woods” on an imaginative fairy-tale adventure.
Who is it best for? It’s advertised as suitable “for brave children 8 and up”, so be equally guided by your child’s age but also her appetite for spooky, scary things. The Bargehouse is dimly lit and atmospheric, and some of the characters certainly ooze spite and malice. Ultimate endings, however, are invariably happy – for the good guys, at least.
Top Tip A familiarity with the stories will make it easier to follow proceedings, so invest in a copy of the book that inspired the production, Philip Pullman Grimm Tales for Young and Old (Penguin Classics, £8.99) that features 50 stories from well-loved classics like Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel (strictly, non-Disney versions) to lesser known tales like The Cat and Mouse Set up House, The Nixie and the Millpond – and quite a few stories about Hans (Gambling Hans, Hans-my-Hedgehog, Strong Hans, Iron Hans…)
Our favourite bit Wandering round the sprawling fairytale rooms after the performances have ended and spotting all the fairy tale clues, from Sleeping Beauty’s spinning wheel to seven little beds, all neatly made, a Roberts radio sitting by every bedside.
Don’t go If you’re afraid of the Big Bad Wolf!
While you’re there Take advantage of the special pre-theatre dining offers in the area. Sea Containers at the newly opening Mondrian Hotel is offering an exclusive Grimm Tales Menu for lunch and dinner, while the Oxo Tower has a Grimm Feasting Menu featuring wild sharing boards and Huntsman’s Stews from 4.30–5.15pm (exclusions apply).
Did you know? Although the original Snow White by the Brothers Grimm featured many familiar motifs including the magic mirror, the poison apple and a glass coffin, the seven drawfs were not given names. The first time they were named was in a 1912 Broadway play where they were Christened (sounding rather like Santa’s reindeer) Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick and Quee. Walt Disney gave the names that we all know and love in his 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Drawfs and Bashful, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy and Doc were born.
Author notes Born in Norwich in 1946, Philip Pullman grew up in Zimbabwe and Wales. He worked as a teacher for many years and his first children’s novel, Count Karlstein, was published in 1982. The Ruby in the Smoke, the first of the Sally Lockhart quartet of Victorian thrillers, was published in 1985. He has won many awards for his children’s books, including the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children’s Book Award, the Smarties Prize, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the Whitbread Book of the Year and a CBE. His Dark Materials, comprising Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, has been published in 39 languages, and the first volume was made into a major motion picture, The Golden Compass, in 2007. Grimm Tales: For Young and Old was published in 2012.