Kneehigh make vital new theatre out of mouldy old stories, and director Emma Rice’s latest project is a lively and characteristically overloaded version of the Grimm fairytale more usually known as The Handless Maiden, in which a miller barters his daughter to the devil by mistake.
Stuart McLoughlin’s devil, the show’s manipulative narrator, makes the impoverished father – “I’m so poor I can’t even pay attention” — cut off the fiery girl’s hands, which remain clean after he’s determined to make her filthy. She’s doused in a liquid mud bath, but her mitts stay gleaming.
Then, her identity switching from Audrey Brisson’s pubescent girl – and there’s something sinister and sexual about the abduction – to Patrycja Kujawska’s brilliant blonde virtuoso violinist, she’s suddenly rendered helpless with stumps. She becomes a bestial sprite in the forest, but a prince falls in love with her when she’s stealing his pears, here represented by descendent light bulbs.
Kneehigh’s prancing prince is hilariously Scottish (“That’s a royal pear you’ve got there!”) and he provides her with new hands, one a sickle, one a mini-rake; she’s a scissorhands sister. They fall in love and he takes her home to mother, a genteel aristocratic portrait with protruding real hands, a sly inversion of the girl’s fate. So far so happy ever after, and the interval comes after sixty-five minutes of utterly beguiling, ingenious theatre.
The show tails off somewhat, as the prince, now a king – and cleverly doubled with the old father by Stuart Goodwin — goes to war, and the devil’s malign interception and distortion of messages results in wrong information: the couple’s baby is a half dog (a changeling in Grimm), and the queen must be killed.
At this point, a midget puppet “war horse” – a forest deer, the queen substitute — is deprived of his eyes and tongue in exchange for red ribbons, but the story has becomes tangled and inert.
Rice’s production is otherwise colourful, inventive and invigorating, always allowing for the tinge of story-telling tweeness you sometimes get with Kneehigh. The queen – now played by Eva Magyar – endures seven years in the wilderness while her child (another puppet) and her hands grow naturally…
The folksy music by Stu Barker, with blasts of blue grass and “Dem Dry Bones,” is as good as the choreography by Etta Murfitt, and it was not just the presence of Trevor Nunn in the front stalls that suggested Bill Mitchell’s freely conceived design, with its trees and ladders, earthen effects and magical lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, would be ideal for The Tempest.