Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: 'Little Red Riding Hood & Other Lost Girls' at the Crouch End Arthouse, 24th November 2016

Bad things happen in the woods. Deep within the tangled foliage, where the trees blot out the sun and the ground grows boggy, chaos reigns. This is the kingdom of the wolf: a rapacious, amoral force of nature that creeps, hunts and pounces, devouring anyone unfortunate to end up in its clutches. AThis far into woods, if you scream, no-one will hear you. Yet a little girl skips daintily through all this on her way to visit her grandmother. This is Red Riding Hood, or Little Red Cap, or (from the wolf's perspective) dinner.

Everywhere wolves have lived seems to have some folk story variation on the same themes: the wolf's cunning and treachery, and the little girl's initial obliviousness and hidden cunning that lets her escape (or not, in the darker variations). Performance storyteller Nell Phoenix, part of the 'Crick Crack Club', guides us through this literary thicket, identifying the common thematic strands that exist everywhere from Staines to Japan and weaving them together into a deeply satisfying whole.

First things first, Phoenix is an amazing storyteller. Her voice is acrobatic, one moment a gutturally charming wolfish growl, the next sweet as sugar. She picks through the syllables and pauses of her tale like a mountain goat skipping up a cliff face - confident, able and never close to putting a foot wrong. On top of that she has an enviable and evocative control of her body language, hunching over into crone-dom or puffing her shoulders out to communicate the wolf's size and power, or gradually shrinking herself down to show us five increasingly small children.

Phoenix could make reciting the phone book fascinating, but here the content is at least as compelling as the delivery. In a gentle folk history lesson we travel through various European forests (French Red Riding Hood brings wine and cheese to her grandmother, while her German equivalent brings beer and sausage), all the way to a loose and surreal Chinese sister story which features an animated severed head and a demonic talking cabbage.

Common to all is the diabolical trickster wolf and the vulnerable young girl. The original Little Red Riding Hood story dates from about the 10th century, so it functions pretty straightforwardly as a warning that medieval children shouldn't stray too deeply into the woods - after all they're in danger of actually getting eaten by wolves. But as the story mutates over the years, the wolf becomes a symbol of sly, manipulative masculinity and his ambitions of consumption become a metaphor for sex.

This is all played with the utmost charm and creepy insistence, Phoenix describing the wolf as having a 'creamy' voice and taking care to accentuate his physique, hairiness, leering smile and, eventually, his cock. The children's stories get increasingly icky undertones, hearing variations in which the wolf instructs Little Red Riding Hood to remove her clothes, piece by piece, and eventually climb into bed naked, next to his bristly body.

It's at this point that the season title Fairytales for Grown-Ups makes sense. Folk tales and storytelling traditions like this are messages from the past, true unfiltered insights into the minds of now dusty and forgotten ancestors. I was enthralled, entertained and little blown-away by Nell Phoenix. If you spot her performing I'd urge you to check it out. If not, the next two in this performance series promise to be as good.


Fairytales for Grown-Ups continues in 2017 with 'Rebranding Beelzebub' and 'Others from the Other Side' at the Crouch End Arthouse. Details/tickets here. 

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