Mike Kenny
Tutti Frutti and York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal Studio

Gayle Newbolt as Rapunzel Credit: Peter Byrne
Gayle Newbolt as Rapunzel and Selina Zaza as Nan Credit: Peter Byrne
Gayle Newbolt as Rapunzel and Max Gallagher as Rafi Credit: Peter Byrne

Children’s theatre company Tutti Frutti turns 21 this year, and they continue to delight audiences of all ages, this time commissioning a new version of the classic tale from the talented—and seemingly tireless—writer Mike Kenny.

This production is suitable for children aged 3+ and their families, and like previous Tutti Frutti works such as last year’s Hare and Tortoise, it works excellently as an introduction to a magical theatrical world for the lower ages—though director Wendy Harris and company characteristically throw in enough of interest to keep those accompanying the children entertained.

Kenny’s treatment of the story is stripped to a few of the classic’s simplest elements, and omits some of the darker turns of the well-known Grimm version. It’s a well-thought-out move, which ensures that the show will enthral rather than scare younger audiences, while making his chosen themes streamlined and clear.

So the witch becomes Nan, looking after the child Rapunzel after her mother left across the ‘big sea’ in the distance, and the Prince is Rafi, a local boy. He spots Rapunzel’s beautiful hair and climbs up to play with her. The themes here are of how far children should be protected from the outside world, which is ‘not always nice’, and of curiosity for escape, and travel, rather than the potentially more adult topics of the fairy tale.

Which is not to say that the production talks down to its audience; far from it. Kenny has a fantastic way of encouraging self-expression, often through small acts of rebellion. Hence Rapunzel chooses to dye her locks purple, evincing a lovely reaction from Nan. She changes her name—though next year changes it back. This is no clichéd stroppy teenager but a youthful, adventurous, vivid spirit who’s keen to explore. Anyone who’s seen children grow from toddlers to teens will smile with recognition.

At the heart of this show are skilled, endearing performances from the three young performers, some fresh out of drama school. Max Gallagher spends most of the time as a narrator before transforming into Rafi; he gives a lovely, wide-eyed performance. Nan is played with wit and character by Selina Zaza. She brings just the right touch of apparent witchiness to the role while making it clear that within her beats a very human, loving heart.

Gayle Newbolt as Rapunzel is similarly captivating, with a slightly otherworldly but nonetheless robust presence which suits the character well. Her growth as we follow the character’s story from birth to age fourteen is delightfully realised, and she and her companions combine to form a winning narrating team.

The text is punctuated and supported by movement sequences hovering perfectly between abstract dance and clear storytelling; these are choreographed by the experienced and inventive movement director TC Howard, who has worked with V-TOL, David Glass Ensemble and Frantic Assembly. Her movement work complements Chris Mellor’s charmingly wayward score, which itself is augmented by occasional use of onstage instruments, song and percussion.

Catherine Chapman’s design is simple, effective, and full of wonders; the treatment of Rapunzel’s famous mane is splendid, giving rise to fun moments as Newbolt skips and paints with her impossibly long plaits.

All this is overseen by director Wendy Harris with some lovely touches, managing to create a spellbinding atmosphere of ensemble story-telling as well as moving moments for the individual characters. Again, those looking for a magical and thought-provoking early experience of the wonder and power of theatre should treat themselves to Tutti Frutti.

The show is at York Theatre Royal Studio until 13 October, then tours around the country.

Reviewer: Mark Smith

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