Review: Anansi the Spider (Unicorn Theatre)

Justin Audibert oversees a new production of the classic folk tales

Anansi the Spider
Anansi the Spider
© Craig Sugden

Hailing originally from Ghana but common throughout West African and Caribbean cultures, Anansi is a mischievous figure at the centre of countless folk tales. To mark Black History Month, Unicorn artistic director Justin Audibert has staged three of his favourite stories, two of which feature Anansi in his regular spider guise. They cover a large emotional gamut, with the darker elements leavened by plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

It kicks off with the story of Anansi's efforts to gather all the world's common sense, including some neat audience interaction as he persuades the children seated around him to hand over their own ("I don't have any!" shouted more than one young joker). But there's a serious moral point, that wisdom should be earned rather than taken, and deployed for the good of all rather than selfishly hoarded.

Performed by the dynamic trio Afia Abusham, Sapphire Joy and Juliet Okotie, Anansi's yarns are spun on Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey's evocative forest set. Dark branches climb to canvas canopies creating a richly immersive experience. The flip side is that the scarier moments in the second story, when Anansi tricks other animals into being killed by a snake, can be quite overwhelming for young children (my own daughter included).

Music is used to subtle effect, from the opening drumming to Anansi's siren call inviting the animals to his lair. There's some strong instrumental work from the company throughout, though recorded dance beats are used in the final story in which greedy Anansi sends his two sons to different parties. Needless to say his plan to tie a rope around himself in order for the boys to alert him when the food is ready does not go entirely to plan.

The Unicorn has long had form telling sometimes dark stories without sugar-coating, and this is no exception. Audibert's production provides a solid introduction for those new to the Anansi legend, while exploring this often complex character in enough depth to avoid mere rehashing. And though it can be genuinely scary, there is nothing that is especially gruesome when held up next to the Grimm tales. All told this is one spider's web that is well worth getting caught up in.