Dark Woods, Deep Snow: A Grimm Tale for Christmas

Chris Thorpe
Northern Stage
Northern Stage, Newcastle

Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland Credit: Topher McGrillis
Gary Kitching Credit: Topher McGrillis
Assad Zaman and Paul Charlton Credit: Topher McGrillis
Assad Zaman, Gary Kitching, Abbi Greenland, Helen Goalen and Paul Charlton Credit: Topher McGrillis
Joanna Holden Credit: Topher McGrillis

It's all about stories, the stories we tell each other. Where do they go once they're told? Do they vanish for ever or are they stored somewhere? Perhaps they are stored in the dark woods where the Brothers Grimm found their fairy tales. Perhaps this place is outside of our world and a group of people pluck them from the air, collect them and file them away so they don't just disappear.

But what if something goes wrong? What if somehow the stories fragment, break up before they are collected and filed?

In the dark woods in this world just next to our own, four siblings—two brothers and two sisters—whose job it is to collect the stories, and a boy they found lost and wandering in the woods are faced with just this problem.

This is the situation at the start of Dark Woods, Deep Snow, Northern Stage's Christmas show for people over the age of 7, artistic director Lorne Campbell's first since he took over from Erica Whyman earlier this year.

It's very different to what we have become used to, which is hardly surprising as the writer is Chris Thorpe, one of the founder members of Unlimited Theatre, and Campbell's own company Greyscale aims to produce theatre which is "original and anarchic." Choreography is by RashDash (Helen Goalen who plays Mila and Abbi Greenland as her sister Lily) who specialise in theatre which uses a lot of song, music and dance.

It's clear there is something wrong in this world right from the start. The boy, Luka (Assad Zaman), tells us his story but it, like his movement, is broken and disjointed, and the old witch-like woman (Joanna Holden), who has been a constant presence on the stage long before the show begins, clearly isn't quite sure who (or what) she is, as she talks as if she is made up of old women from a number of different stories. And who are those characters, some with very strange bird-like heads, who constantly flit back and forth across the stage?

Then we meet the siblings—Mila, Lily, Will (Paul Charlton) and Johann (Gary Kitching)—as they set about trying to rescue the situation. Which, of course, they do with the aid of Luka—and that's not a spoiler because everyone knows that the best stories end "happily ever after."

Then there's the strange sci-fi-like control room (I heard an audience member whisper, "The Tardis?"), operated primarily by Johann, which sinks to the floor and rises again frequently throughout the show—a scientific aid to collect the stories. And there's even a bit of audience participation: our help is needed and everyone in the audience willingly (well, after a bit of encouragement, the full-size humans needing much more cajoling than the half-size!) rose to their feet to join in.

This is a show which will polarise audiences—I heard comments ranging from "brilliant" to "****"—but looking at the audience revealed two very different pictures: where many adults were looking at each other in bemusement (or worse), the children were transfixed.

Children do not approach theatre with the sophistication and intellectualising we adults bring to it but simply let it work its magic on them; they don't try to force it into a pre-conceived idea of the appropriate structure but just sit back and accept; what might seem illogical or obscure to the adult mind is just part of the experience for them; they make connections which adults often don't see. That's the way to approach this show: try to see it like a child and it suddenly appears to be very different, much more involving and understandable—and enjoyable.

It has weaknesses—there are too many times when the stage is empty apart from a few flitting figures and unseen characters speak over the sound system, and it can be a little wordy—but the performances more than make up for it. And not just the performances: the design by Garance Marneur, James Mackenzie's lighting and Rebecca Wilkie's music and sound all contribute enormously to creating the odd world which these odd characters inhabit.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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