“The strongest thing I ever made, was a set of claws for a girl to wear, the strongest thing I ever made was a pair of claws for a girl to tear her way to freedom…”
Once upon a time, there lived a girl who longed for a different kind of theatre, a theatre free of wires and screens, a theatre as old as the land that whispered to her of forgotten songs and stories. Sitting in the intimate studio space of the Soho Theatre, The Girl With the Iron Claws bewitched our heroine with haunting music and swept her away to a world of puppets and shadows that haunt her still. And yet this was no witch’s spell but a fairytale production expertly woven with magic and mischief by the Wrong Crowd Theatre Company.
Drawing on the inspiration of an old Nordic folk story, The Girl With the Iron Claws exhibits such a wild inventiveness that one is instantly transported back into childhood, the actors and audience alike becoming merely children at play. So caught up in this gleeful energy was I that I could almost feel the snow crunching under my feet and icy wind at my hair as we immersed ourselves in a land of princes cursed to live as bears by wicked troll queens and a princess whose love, plus a sturdy set of iron claws, will set him free.
In a world of make believe, ordinary objects become unyielding weapons of a child’s imagination. This idea is wonderfully realised as the play’s four outstanding actors transform practical and budget limitations into moments of inspired creativity. A simple curtain that masks the actors’ swapping of characters back and forth becomes a gateway to a land of shadows. Initially used as an enchanting way to explore our princess’s blossoming sexuality, the shadows become both beguiling and frightening as, against the silhouette of a lovers’ first kiss, we glimpse the lurking presence of the jealous troll queen’s claws.
These hints of darkness do not detract from what is, at its heart, a very funny piece. Most crucial to this humour is the scene-stealing Laura Cairns, who weaves a sense of mischief and naughtiness into each of her characterisations, whether as the troll queen or just a slightly confused old Scottish lady.
When the troll queen is angry, Cairns bolts behind a giant paper mache head that she animates alongside two large claws held up by two of her cast mates. Its crudeness makes it, ultimately, all the more frightening, the kind of monster that dwells not in the nightmares of adults but those of children. And yet Cairns tempers this monstrous creation with great wit and silliness too. “Good luck with that!” she sniggers, after cursing the prince with all the ferocity she can muster, returning mildly from behind her mask.
The puppets that the actors skilfully employ throughout the piece are simply a delight to watch. Perhaps it is something in their movements, or the way the painted eyes seem to come alive, but whatever their theatrical power, they seem to invoke a strange sense of enchantment within the audience. The piece ultimately works to give back that lost sense of wonder that one only feels as a child. The Girl With the Iron Claws is propelled by the magic of the past, utilising ancient story telling methods such as shadows and song to transport us back to childhood and escape, if only for an hour, from a world where the children have all grown up.