“If my mother tells me not to leave the path again, then that’s what I’ll do”
A shoebrush becomes a baby hedgehog, a repurposed umbrella a mournful songbird, a coil of rope Rapunzel’s long tresses. For the eight people roaming the nooks and crannies beneath Shoreditch Town Hall, anything they find can be co-opted into their storytelling, as they give us their versions of Grimm’s fairy tales, although some will be more familiar than others. And it is not strictly their version, as Philip Wilson’s production uses Philip Pullman’s adaptation of the stories to weave a subtle kind of magic.
The show describes itself as immersive, but it is a gentler kind of immersion than most, probably better described as site-responsive. For the audience are split into two groups and taken on a journey from room to room, through five performances which draw us into their orbit, yet ask little of us but our attention (in case the notion of interaction causes any anxiety). And it is hard not to be enchanted as the company weave their spell through the darker stretches of the imagination – happily ever after doesn’t always seem guaranteed in this world.
And what a gorgeous world it is. Tom Rogers’ hugely imaginative design is just wonderful, space after space has been dressed with loving attention to detail, suggesting the stories we’re seeing and also hints of others too. A room with beds for seven, a spinning wheel with the sharpest of needles and a corridor lined with mirrors are just some of the nods towards the wider world of these stories. Howard Hudson’s lighting gathers clusters of flickering lightbulbs to beautifully evocative effect and the costumes, also designed by Rogers, have a fabulously inventive make-do attitude.
Which sets up the stories well. They’re told as Pullman wrote them, the performers splitting the narrative voice between them which adds a propulsive tension which is always fascinating – the enthusiasm of Rapunzel’s prince against the slinky weariness of the witch holding her captive for instance. And there’s no shirking the sharper edges of death and loss that permeate so many of them – The Juniper Tree has definite moments of horror, The Three Snake Leaves has a real melancholy to its soul – the dynamism of their telling meaning nothing lingers too long though.
The free-flowing ensemble is excellent too. Warmly engaging, their direct eye contact is always inviting rather than challenging, as they guide us deeper and deeper into this strange land. They all get their various chances to shine – Rebecca Bainbridge’s poise as a kindly princess, Ashley Alymann’s bounteous king and James Byng’s plaintive little boy remain in the mind but the star of the evening is undoubtedly Simon Wegrzyn. A heartbroken soldier, an all-too-seductive wolf or the captivating lead of Hans-my-Hedgehog, he is certainly one to watch.