Grimm Tales (Bargehouse)

More Grimm from Philip Pullman as a second promenade experience unfolds in the shadow of the Oxo Tower

Paul Clerkin and Megan Salter
Paul Clerkin and Megan Salter
© Tom Medwell
"Hmm: dimly-lit clutter and moody noises said the reviewer. It’s a bit Punchdrunk."

"It's not the same at all cried the wicked witch. We just act out the stories."

"So what’s with the third-person dialogue he asked. Very Brechtian. But it wasn’t. It was just a thing. So he sat back and surrendered to a handful of jolly tales and a lot of hanging around."

The awkwardness of adaptor-director Philip Wilson’s 'he said, she said' narrative dissipates as the ear attunes to the verbal mannerisms of his six Grimm Tales for Young and Old (each of the three perambulating groups of spectators only gets to see five of them – I missed out on Faithful Johannes). So taken is Wilson with Philip Pullman’s literary retellings that he can’t tear himself away from their cadences even when a bit more freedom might help propel the drama; yet his style does have its own charm.

As does the production, which is not a remake of the version staged at Shoreditch Town Hall last March but a continuation – Volume 2 if you like – that sprawls across four floors (or is it five?) of the dilapidated Oxo Tower Bargehouse. Wear stout shoes and take a scarf.

'An endless fund of creativity turns cotton reels into strawberries'

The ramshackle environment is intricately, exquisitely designed and lit by Tom Rogers and Howard Hudson. Walls are adorned with ancient shadowed artwork and a thousand lightbulbs spatter them with faint illumination. All around there are things to touch, objects to handle. Factor in some insidious sound and music by Richard Hammarton that echoes and overlaps from space to far-off space and the Punchdrunkification is complete.

Yet the breezily theatrical playing style of Wilson’s 16 actor-storytellers is at odds with this immersive atmosphere; it’s an experience that cries out for fewer words and more physicality. Performances are never less than polished and always characterful, but they would be more at home in a traditional theatre.

Then there’s the question of its target audience. There is nothing dangerous here, and any robust child will love its darkly humorous yarn-spinning – not to mention some witty puppets and an endless fund of creativity that turns cotton reels into strawberries and wheelbarrows into a golden carriage – but when it comes to patience through long periods of down time they’ll need a strong stomach. You'll be loitering for longer than you’d wish in the beautifully decorated holding areas, and the bar in the Seven Dwarves’ cottage is more adult-orientated than the show's content.

The tales themselves are a tasty brew of the well-known and the less familiar. It’s good to be reminded of Hansel and Gretel in its full form, while The Three Little Men in the Woods has a deliciously macabre, non-PC ending. Expect a long evening but a merry one and chances are you’ll live happily ever after.