Eight fairytales and stories re-told by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy form the basis of this remarkable children’s show, a feast of theatrical imagination and moral and romantic justice. Physical theatre is an over-used term (what theatre isn’t physical?) but not here.
Duffy’s fables were dramatised six years ago at the Bristol Old Vic by Melly Still and Tim Supple; Still’s production is a genuine revival, not a re-heat, on a diamond-shaped bare stage with eight wonderfully skilled and versatile actors speaking mostly in “third person” early Shared Experience style.
We have the horrors of Bluebeard’s castle, where the serial wife-slayer commands his new partner to prepare herself for God; and the medieval spookiness of the Beast’s lair before Beauty’s persistence and devotion leads the yelping monster in a stocking mask and curling talons to a sacramental cleansing.
In lighter vein, the “magnificently attired” but in effect naked Emperor (Jack Tarlton) parades behind some judiciously arranged flags and flowers before baring his bum – to the delight of the young Muslim girls I sat among – and exposing the pretensions of his acolytes; while an incompetent Norwegian farmer is pushed in a porridge pot by a clumsy cow falling off a roof.
That cow is brilliantly done by Jason Thorpe mooing dolefully, slowing his head movement, and clumping about with a pendulous rubber glove for udders. Similarly, Kelly Williams does a lovely colt with flaring nostrils and clogs for hooves in the tale of a dog troubled by a big bad wolf.
As well as tales from Aesop, Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen, Duffy and Still have energised lesser known stories such as The Juniper Tree, from a 1913 fairy book, in which a hateful stepmother kills her child: he’s chopped in pieces and put through a mincer in silhouette before being reincarnated as a singing bird then restored magically to life.
Each episode is given its own distinctive interpretation, with wonderful use of properties and scenic devices. But ultimately this is a show about the roots of theatre itself, the timeless art of telling stories and doing so as simply and as beautifully as possible.