The first incarnation of director Philip Wilson’s Grimm Tales, in Shoreditch, now seems like a trial run for this – a bigger and better version of the show – at the Oxo Tower Bargehouse. Six different stories, adapted from Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, are presented with enchanting insight, using every inch of the huge building as a remarkable canvas.
Grimm Tales is the best kind of immersive theatre. The location is transformed to add to the telling, but Wilson’s strong vision never loses sight of the simple power the stories have. It’s like Punchdrunk without the puzzle – challenging yet satisfying. The tales chosen are relatively obscure. Hansel and Gretel make an appearance but their story is more complex than the one we’re all familiar with. Each tale is wonderfully weird and scarily dark.
Groups of performers share the words between them, mixing dialogue and narration, creating an engaging, forceful style. The actors do a superb job conveying an underlying excitement about the stories and the telling of them, as they guide you onto the next suitably grim spectacle. James Byng stands out as the Frog King and Megan Salter is wonderful as the princess who runs away from an incestuous father to become Thousandfurs.
Pullman and Wilson bring out a great deal of humour in telling the tales and never shy away from their appalling content. Even Hollywood presents us with different sides to fairy stories nowadays, but Grimm Tales is a long way from Disney. I’d be a little wary about the eight and above age guide, the show is two and three quarter hours long for a start, but that’s probably because I don’t have children myself – I’ve heard kids can be pretty bloodthirsty.
Most thrilling of all is the detail that’s gone into creating a unique world to tell these stories. The costumes and sets by Tom Rogers are astounding: everyday props and lo-fi puppetry belie an exciting inventiveness and a huge technical achievement. With 2,000 light bulbs above and nine tonnes of rubber crumb underfoot the scale is impressive. Yet the stripped-back bricolage aesthetic works brilliantly to focus attention and captivate the imagination.
As the stories end, the audience is free to explore other rooms; further fantastic spaces to imagine other stories in are revealed. These sets are like something from an art gallery – maybe installation theatre would be a better term for this immersive experience? One thing is for sure; once upon a time doesn’t feel anywhere near long enough to explore this magical space.
Until 11 April 2015