Grim Grimms: Fairytales for Grown Ups

Ben Haggarty (storyteller) and Sherry Robinson (musician)

The Crick Crack Club

York Theatre Royal

On 18 March 2017

Review by James Ballands

First performed in 2012 to mark the bicentenary of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s first story collection, Grim Grimms: Fairytales for Grown Ups offers adults and adolescents the opportunity to re-experience the pleasures of storytelling that we once enjoyed as children.

Amongst the 86 stories contained in Children’s and Household Tales (1812) are such recognisable titles as Rapunzel, Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin. However, storyteller Ben Haggarty eschews these familiar tales in favour of lesser-known ones. It’s common knowledge that many of the Grimms’ tales have been sanitized—whether in Ladybird books or Disney films—to make them more palatable to a younger audience. In this hugely enjoyable show, Haggarty offers audiences the chance to hear four of the Grimms’ most macabre and frightening stories in their original uncensored form.

The evening starts with The Goose Girl, in which a young princess is betrayed by her servant (the daughter of a troll-hag) who forces her to trade places ahead of her wedding to a handsome prince. In the fourth and final story, Trusty John, the titular hero attempts to protect his royal master and his new bride from the magic of an irate sorcerer.

My personal favourites are the two middle stories. In The Juniper Tree, one of the Grimms’ most deliciously macabre tales, a young boy with red hair and red eyes is murdered by his stepmother, but returns as a singing bird to wreak vengeance upon her. In Bearskin, an impoverished soldier makes a deal with the Devil to live as a bear-man for seven years in exchange for infinite wealth. If he fails, the Devil will possess his soul for all eternity.

Grim Grimms: Fairytales for Grown Ups is a stripped-down affair: there is no set, no lighting effects, no costumes. The production relies entirely on its two performers—storyteller Ben Haggarty and composer-musician Sherry Robinson—to breathe life into these tall tales, and this they do with great aplomb.

As co-founder of the Crick Crack Club, the UK’s most important promoter and programmer of storytelling events, Haggarty is positively steeped within this oral tradition. Throughout the two hours, he demonstrates all the skills and qualities that we might associate with a master storyteller: his personifications of the different characters are vividly drawn and clearly differentiated; his vocal delivery ekes out every moment of narrative suspense and tension, and he injects a sense of wonder into all the strange and magical events that he relates. He is a truly captivating presence, winning over the audience from the outset and keeping them spellbound until the very end.

He is ably supported by Robinson, who demonstrates her considerable musical gifts by playing a variety of different instruments, including a cello, a double bass and a harp. Her musical accompaniment adds greater colour and texture to Haggarty’s storytelling, underscoring moments of pathos and tension and helping the audience to succumb to the show’s delightful reveries.

Haggarty named the Crick Crack Club after a Caribbean storytelling tradition in which the storyteller would shout "crick?" to the audience and they would respond with "crack" if they wanted to hear a story. After watching Grim Grimms and last year’s Kali, in which Emily Hennessy retold some of India’s most extraordinary myths, I long to see and hear more of their work. Crack, crack, crack!