Kneehigh Theatre Company
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
The wonderful Kneehigh from Cornwall goes back to its roots in children's theatre with this adaptation of the classic fairy tale Rapunzel, billed as being for 'wide-eyed adults and brave children'.
Rapunzel is left as a baby in a herb patch and found and raised by herbalist Mother Gothel, but when she reaches adolescence her guardian locks her in a tower so she will never leave her for someone else. Meanwhile, the Duke of Tuscany has named his son Patrizio as his heir, to the annoyance of his brother Paulo. Rapunzel and Patrizio find one another and fall in love, but with jealous Paulo and vicious Mother Gothel seeking Patrizio's disappearance or death, the odds of them finally being together seem low.
Despite this production being buried in the brochure and omitted entirely from the new season press release for the Lowry, there was a large and lively crowd watching the opening night of this production in the Salford venue, including quite a few school parties covering a wide age range.
As always, director Emma Rice and her talented and versatile company have created a complex but accessible production full of innovation, imagination and fun. There are hints of British pantomime with the cross dressing and direct audience address, but there is far more originality and joy here than in any modern panto and a visual style that is unmistakably Kneehigh. There are flying, swinging platforms, puppets of animals and people, growing plants, flying butterflies, a live band and much more. There is no mystery about how the effects are achieved as all the mechanics are clearly visible, but you are still left to wonder at the imagination and the skill in execution; the wriggling baby on the platform near the beginning is a simple effect (in principle) that looks stunning.
Unusually, the Quays Theatre in the Lowry has been configured as in-the-round and the seating is unreserved, and so a significant proportion of the audience is watching from where the stage usually is. In the centre are two circular platforms, and the seats nearest to them are free-standing padded blocks, which only a few adults turned their noses up at.
The cast consists of some Kneehigh regulars with a few newcomers to the company. Edith Tankus, one of the new members, is excellent as Rapunzel opposite Pieter Lawman as her love Patrizio, whilst Charlie Barnecut is very sinister as the two 'baddies', Mother Gothel and Paulo. Paul Hunter is quite endearing and funny as hapless robber Pierluigi Ambrosi, and James Traherne is commanding and melancholy as the Duke but a great spivvy robber as Shark Fantini when paired up with Kate Hewitt as Prezzemolina. However, while each performer is superb as an individual, Kneehigh is very much an ensemble company, and this production works superbly in this style from the moment they all first come on in their brown overalls and flying goggles.
Although this production is more 'family friendly' than some recent Kneehigh shows (but still crossing into some harsher territory than some children's shows as writer Annie Siddons successfully avoids what she calls, "the current fad for the Barbiefication of fairy tales, and the sanitised tedium of many of the Disney retellings"), it is not just a show for children; it is joyful, inspirational, wonderfully imaginative theatre for people of all ages.
Ray Brown reviewed this production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Reviewer: David Chadderton