Friday, July 14, 2017

Review: 'Grimm's Fairy Tales' at Abney Park Cemetery, 13th July 2017

Grimm's Fairy Tales reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Turns out there's a good reason the Brothers Grimm weren't the Brothers Cheery. Grimm's Fairy Tales finds Pandemonium Performance in Abney Park Cemetery, their old stalking ground. Within this overgrown labyrinth, we find characters both familiar and stranges. Pandemonium, like many before them, are trying to un-Disney these nursery rhymes and children's tales. Gone are the chirruping animal companions the jaunty songs and the super happy endings.

What's left are dire warnings about the cruelty and unfairness of the world, designed to prepare wide-eyed innocents for a life of drudgery speckled with misery, with a predator around every corner and where a happy ending is probably just wishful thinking. This is underlined by the magnificent backdrop of dead Victorians, looming stone angels and crooked gravestones that, in the summer twilight, begin to resemble rows of crooked teeth.

Pandemonium adapts four stories: Rumplestiltskin, Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel and The Godfather. Paul Lingham, writing and directing, approaches them with a sadistic irreverence. The performers are constantly breaking the fourth wall to light-heartedly menace any children in the audience and making little satirical asides that fly over their heads. And so, for just over an hour, we wander the arteries of the cemetery, getting a glimpse of what it might really be like to be lost deep in the woods.

The show neatly captures this nervous chaos, with characters like Rob Cumming's Wolf and Stephanie Christian's cannibal Witch making us feel as if we've walked off the familiar path and found ourselves somewhere different and dangerous. 

The feeling of dislocation peaks with the final story, The Godfather. This lesser known Grimm story involves a father unable to support his large family, so decides to entrust his thirteenth child to the Grim Reaper. Death raises the child, whose ability to see how long people have left to live makes him become a successful doctor. The moral of the fable is the inevitability and unpredictable nature of death, that you might feel a cold, bony hand touch your shoulder at any moment of the day and there's nothing you can do about it.

At the show I attended were a bunch of under tens who kept an eye on to see if they were enjoying themselves. They spent most of the show nervously excited (there was one great moment where, after The Huntswoman had slain the Wolf, a six-year-old spotted that his chest was still moving and exclaimed in surprise "It's not real! He's still breathing!"). However, in this finale they looked genuinely frightened - with Steve Fitzgerald's quietly sinister Death (with a taxidermied snake coiled around his top hat) even sending a shiver up my spine.

Okay fine, kids have to realise that they're going to end up as worm food at some point, but this being the finale of a show feels a bit like a theatrical sucker punch and is destined to lead to some sleepless nights/kiddie existential dread. I'm far from an advocate for all happy endings all the time, but perhaps concluding with the (relatively) cheerier Hansel & Gretel might have left us with some better vibes.

Despite that, Grimm's Fairy Tales is destined to lodge in the memory. I've seen a bunch of shows in Abney Park Cemetery now, and repetition has not dulled the power of the place. This production is especially notable for allowing us inside the skeletal chapel at the centre of the park. Formerly open to the elements but now newly roofed, it's an intensely cool place, so much so that the weather-beaten stones vie for attention with the play.

Pandemonium Performance are onto a winner here, their skewed adaptation making the familiar unfamiliar by resurrecting the dark, medieval origins of the tales. The cast gives it their all, with Nell Hardy's Hansel a particular highlight (her zombie-like eating is particularly horrifying) You can really sense the weight of history in the characters, get a taste of the power of myth and understand what W.H. Auden was on about when he described the work of the Brothers Grimm as "one of the founding works of Western culture". 

One caveat - if you're thinking of bringing any particular sensitive children along I might give it a miss, unless you want to deal with a worried voice piping up on the ride home: "Mummy, when is Death going to come for me?"

Grimm's Fairy Tales is at Abney Park Cemetery until 30th July, with multiple shows per day. Tickets and details here.

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