Once upon a time there was a grand tower, which stood on the banks of a great gushing river. Though it stood tall, gazing down over the people of the city, it was left to fall into disrepair, its towering pillars slowly beginning to crumble. For some time the tower remained just so, its cold and melancholy walls entombing its vacant halls. Until, one day, a troupe of kings, queens, princes and princesses of old began to fill the tower, bringing with them stories and memories, each one of them keen to recount them to anyone who would listen.
Delving into Phillip Pullman’s reworking of some childhood favourite fairy tales, Grimm Tales is a spellbinding theatrical experience for young and old. Transforming the Oxo Bargehouse into a magical rabbit hole of nostalgic wonderment, it is a delightful and thoroughly absorbing piece of immersive theatre, executed with passion and accompanied by a breathtaking aesthetic.
With incredible attention to detail, the otherwise rustic and derelict South Bank barge has been lavishly decorated with up to two thousand light bulbs, floors caked in wood chippings, lanterns, countless chairs and what appears to be the entire contents of a second-hand furniture store. The effect is a mystical labyrinth of absolute artistry; in many ways, the highlight of the evening is the opportunity to wander around the various sets once the performances are over. Admittedly, it would take hours to fully appreciate the meticulous detail to which the play’s set designer Tom Rogers has gone.
The production has been strongly cast, each member reflecting the play’s love of storytelling and folk tales. In particular, Anthony Ofoegbu fills all his roles with an almost Shakespearean twinkle, his booming voice and physical presence filling the stage. Paul Clerkin, most prominent in his role as the eponymous Faithful Johannes, equally steals the show with commanding ease. Each performance is delivered with real flare, instilling a sense of intrigue and excitement into its audience. I certainly felt a sharp prick of anticipation when prompted to follow the characters around the labyrinthine halls and corridors, keen to see what lay round the corner.
Grimm Tales has a universal appeal. It imbues a sense of almost childish excitement for its material, showcasing some favourite fairy tales to a younger audience as well reminding its adult audience of a former literary love. It is a totally absorbing experience, with Howard Hudson allowing for real intimacy between storyteller and listener with his ingenious lighting set-up. A play that bears no precocious artistic assumptions or intentions, it is a unique opportunity for many to see their favourite childhood stories visualised for the first time. Told with an esteemed warmth, it is a mystical story in which, after painstaking blocking and design, a cast, a crew and ultimately an audience all lived happily ever.
Grimm Tales is playing at the OXO Bargehouse on the South Bank. For more information and tickets, see the Grimm Tales website.
Photo by Tom Medwell.