Review: Rumpelstiltskin (Southbank Centre)

Australia’s State Theatre Company and Windmill Theatre Company present the European premiere of their show

Sheridan Harbridge (Harriet) and Paul Capsis (Rumpelstiltskin) in Rumpelstiltskin
Sheridan Harbridge (Harriet) and Paul Capsis (Rumpelstiltskin) in Rumpelstiltskin
© The Other Richard

There's nothing more appealing than a festive fairytale. In spite of their darker aspects, Grimm's stories have Christmas all over them – a chance to extol some moral virtues while, usually, being merry and cockle-warming at the same time.

Australia's State Theatre Company and Windmill Theatre Company know this well. In this new offering making its European premiere, they have taken the initial tale of Rumpelstiltskin, stripped it bare and added all the necessary contemporary vibes to allow the show to just about qualify as a modern day parable.

The stand-in for Grimm's "little girl" (originally the one who has to give up all her worldly possessions to impress a king and spin gold) is a millennial, rucksack sporting Harriet, who trades her hair, whistle and an apple to gain a foothold on the fashion career ladder. Rather than a malicious imp, this rejigged version presents Rumpelstiltskin as a misunderstood figure, isolated because of his strange appearance (being the grandson of an onion rarely does anyone favours in the looks department) yet still the greatest designer in all the land. Harriet's greed and ambition lead her to a bit of a major snafu as she attempts to barter with the part-man part-vegetable and make her fortune.

But the show, with a slow, melancholic pace, is more wearisome than whimsical. Lacking real punch it drifts along over two acts when really a neater, speedier outing could have been far more effective, and certainly more engaging for the kids in the crowd. Visually the show finds a strange mixture of Seuss and David Lynch-esque vibes – maybe even a Kraftwerk version of The Cat in the Hat.
Jethro Woodward's tunes, though well performed by the cast and musicians, are largely forgettable, aside from one, Michael Jackson-inspired protest song recited by Ezra Juanta that closes the evening.

The problem with making Rumpelstiltskin a more genial character is that it makes the stakes all feel mightily low – like a panto with fewer bawdy jokes and less audience interaction. Paul Capsis still gives a refined turn in the lead role – androgynously styled, coated with grey paint and sporting some distinctive yellow gloves. For the most part though, he hovers awkwardly and endearingly, floating around the stage while Sheridan Harbridge's Harriet demands her worldly desires.

What captivates, almost without fail, is Chris Edser's video design and Gavin Norris' lighting. Projected onto a series of arches encompassing the stage, Edser's creations transform a largely flat surface into a vibrant, deeply saturated and quirky performance space. From the very first moment, when Rumpelstiltskin gives a backstory to his life, they are inescapably magisterial, flicking from Ferris wheels to boutique stores before creating Mario Kart-esque road races. It's the sort of liveliness the rest of the production sorely needs.

With some rudimentary economics ("credit is a ticking time bomb" the cast sing with the broadest brush strokes imaginable) the end conclusion – that love lasts when consumerism doesn't – just doesn't really feel all that fresh.