Grimm Tales (Shoreditch Town Hall)
An immersive staging of Philip Pullman’s ''Grimm Tales for Young and Old'' has its world debut at the East London venue
Grey-cloaked virgins greet the audience with glasses of champagne (presumably only on opening night) and usher them downstairs to the damp, dark vaults. It's like the start of the ritual scene in Eyes Wide Shut, without the nudity and Nicole Kidman, alas.
En route, an array of white dresses hang in the air like phantoms, and the walls are encrusted with detailed mini-installations. So far, so Punchdrunk; but there's no coercion, no horrid masks, and no flabby "go where you like" mood once the show starts.
The audience is divided into two cadres moving between these wonderfully atmospheric interconnecting rooms, where the distressed brickwork, fireplaces and exposed floors have been eerily enhanced by designers Tom Rogers (set and costumes) and Howard Hudson (lighting) with a Breughelesque brew of rough breeches and cloth hats, piles of straw and wood shavings, constellations of naked bulbs and candles in glass jars.
For five of Philip Pullman's recently published re-writes of the Grimm Fairy Tales, this proves an exactly appropriate medieval setting, all done in ninety minutes. Grab a bentwood chair if you're quick, otherwise sidle around the walls and corners like a farmyard rodent as eight fine actors mix the macabre and terrifying narratives with third person propulsion.
Philip Wilson's expert, intensely enjoyable production picks up where the Young Vic and Carol Ann Duffy left off, re-visiting Little Red Riding Hood (Simon Wegrzyn's wonderful red-headed wolf has a huge sable collar), re-knotting Rapunzel (named after a salad ingredient and sporting hair of coiled and filthy nautical rope) and re-inventing the amazing story of The Juniper Tree, in which a puppet child is beheaded in an apple trunk and eaten by dad in a stew while a manipulated bird of dazzling plumage bears witness to domestic catastrophe and forms a millstone round a criminal's neck.
Less familiar, but no less Grimmly gruesome, are The Three Snake Leaves in which a soldier consents to being buried alive as a condition of winning the princess, and Hans-My-Hedgehog in which a bad-tempered farmer's boy, half flesh, half prickles, serenades pigs on bagpipes and …well, dammit Janet, this one does have a happy ending despite everything.
Otherwise, the performance panders deliciously to the worst in all of us and proves once more that children's stories are best kept for adults. Theatrically, this gothic shared experience combines magic realism with primitive story-telling; maybe one day someone will find a way of creating a whole evening from one story, or from several more sewn-together stories, and eliminate the Jackanory element of information update altogether. But this will certainly do for now.