Immersive theatre experiences can be incredibly hit and miss; success depends so much on all the elements; venue and set design, costume and cast, the latter having the formidable task of breaking down the fourth wall to take the audience by the hand. So whilst I'm a huge fan of Pullman and his pedigree speaks for itself, I was a little nervous about whether this production of his Grimm Tales would pull off the retelling of tales already so deeply embedded in our collective psyche.
But as a cloaked Red Riding Hood led us into the depths of the crumbling cellars beneth Shoreditch Town Hall, down a staircase hung with lights shining out through the skirts of vintage wedding dresses, I was already reassured that they'd got the aesthetic just right. Tom Rogers' set and costume design made it feel like you'd stepped into the pages of a Tim Walker shoot- the Juniper tree sprouted branches of rusty, industrial angled lamps, piles of vintage wooden chairs evoked a forest and even the little spaces in between the main rooms were filled with delightful imagery- corridors lined with looking glasses, shelves of antique clocks strewn with cobwebs and spinning wheels peaking out of dark alcoves.
The challenge of telling well known tales like Rapunzel alongside some of Grimm's lesser known canon was met by all the cast who shon in the variety of roles they took on. Simon Wegrzyn's delightfully camp wolf deserves a special mention, in fact Little Red Riding Hood may have been my favourite tale of all, due partly to the ingenious use of a vertically positioned bed into which Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood disappeared when eaten by the wolf. I'd also forgotten quite how graphic the original version is, with the baffling snipping open of the wolf's stomach to release the women while he sleeps, only for Little Red Riding Hood to fill his belly with stones and sew him up again.
The tale of the Juniper Tree may also shock some with its depictions of an archetypal evil stepmother serving up her stepson to his father in a stew. However even these darker moments are portrayed with wit and humour, without ever crossing over the line into the farcical, a delicate balance skillfully achieved. The show really is perfect for adults and children- in fact when I was speaking to some cast members afterwards they remarked that being involved in the play was like rediscovering one's inner child- and that's what it felt like being in the audience too. I can only hope plenty of children get to see this production as I think only good things can come from teaching a new generation that a love of stories doesn't have to involve sitting still in a stuffy theatre.
I really hope these guys will be given the chance to tour, as I'd love to see what they did in other locations and even, with other tales. The possibilities are endless, and with Philip Pullman's words and this cast and crew, I have every faith that they can pull off whatever they set their minds to.
Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales runs until 24th April, book here.