Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales

Philip Pullman, adapted by Philip Wilson
Unicorn Theatre
Unicorn Theatre (Weston Theatre)
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Retellings of the tales from the Brothers Grimm have tended to bowdlerise them to remove sex and violence and make them less frightening. Pullman’s versions don’t do that. He adds his own nuances but they stay true to traditional versions that were written for adults, not aimed at infants. These are fairy tales that haven’t been sugared but they aren’t scary and Unicorn suggest that they will suit audiences aged eight and up.

It is parents not children who can’t take the idea of the Wolf who has swallowed Red Riding Hood and her grandma having his belly filled with stones before being sewn up. Certainly no one seemed to flinch as this production told it. Kids aren’t PC. But then they know it’s not real and it isn’t acted out for them.

Kirsty Housley’s production opens the play with a family bedtime. There is a Christmas tree surrounded by presents stage left (downstairs) so it seems to be Christmas Eve but in the bedroom it is mayhem. Things quieten down and toys get put away but there is still a demand for a story. Dad starts to read one to his children, a boy and girl young enough to share a bed (Enoch Lwanga and Rachel Hosker) and a perhaps visiting older girl who’s got a sleeping bag. It is the tale of Little Red Cap (now better known as Red Riding Hood), first of a selection present here that include Hansel and Gretel, The Goose Girl, the less well known Hans My Hedgehog and The Juniper Tree, and one with some elements of the Cinderella story that is very different from the familiar Perrault version.

The children start to act out Little Red Cap’s story, a glove puppet Wolf appearing on dad’s hand before the children decide to make him Wolf Granny. When he ends, they pretend to go to bed but get caught out still awake when he returns on successive occasions.

Still needing stories, the visiting girl Rachel (Giulia Innocenti) takes over reading and another boy slips in (Guy Rhys). He has passed on the stairs and must have heard them. When the Hans story starts, he snaps an Action Man in two and adds a hairbrush to create the boy who’s half-hedgehog and then, as they gather clothes to dress up in, becomes Hans himself.

Soon other characters start appearing called up by the children’s imagination, like Hansel and Gretel’s woodcutter father and his wife (Vera Chok and David Hemmings) and there is so much going on that the grown-ups come to find out and pandemonium follows.

After the interval, things have moved even further into the imagination, the room opened up into a forest. Stories are now acted more fully, the characters in more elaborate costume but the tales are still quite dark. One may be a happy girl-on-girl romance, more likely it is gender-blind casting, but it would make the traditional tale messages stretch wider.

That apart, these Pullman versions don’t have the sharp a commentary on society and belief that marked his Dark Materials trilogy and as played here often it is only part of a tale that is included which can be confusing and the production’s intentional chaos doesn’t help either, but it never gets boring.

Ellan Parry’s imaginative design is impressive with some stylish costumes and the cast give it great vitality, but this presentation of Grimm Tales is so busy trying to be fun that it swaps any intended ironies. The audience it’s aimed at certainly seem to like it (doesn’t every child enjoy seeing others defying adult authority?) but the point of these stories is too often blunted.

Howard Loxton