I’m always apprehensive walking into an immersive theatre piece, imagining something along the lines of the London Dungeons where the actors jump out and touch you. Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales is not quite so invasive, instead thrusting you smack, bang, wallop into the action to see it unfold wonderfully around you, with the option to sit down (if you’re quick enough). It is an experience within itself, generating a great feeling of both dread and excitement within an audience of all ages.
Pullman’s 2012 take on (some of) the Grimm Brothers’ classic tales has been generously realised and catapulted into the suitably atmospheric basement of the Shoreditch Town Hall by adapter and director Philip Wilson. If you’re a Disney fan – or if your sole fairytale reference comes from the legendary albeit sugar-coated film giant – I recommend dispensing of all you know and going into this with an open mind. Out of the five stories portrayed here, I was only familiar with two – Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood – so as well as being very entertaining, this is also informative (sit up, backs straight!).
The basements of the Town Hall look incredible and it’s clear that much time, effort and imagination have been injected into them by set designer Tom Rogers. There isn’t much that stays concrete; the way that a bed in Little Red Riding Hood is comically stood up with the actors inside it, for example, is fresh and exciting to watch. I’m sure a fair amount of money has gone into the production as a whole, but it doesn’t omit any effort in using props in an endlessly creative and often hilarious way.
The audience is split into two groups and each is led separately through the depths of the building. The five stories are acted out using two different teams of actors, with one doing three stories and the other two. The cast are outstanding: never faltering, stumbling over lines (they have a lot) or coming out of character, even when beckoning us slowcoaches to the next room and the next instalment of the experience. Though all great, I was vastly more impressed with the team that consisted of Rebecca Bainbridge, Annabel Betts, Simon Wegrzyn and Paul Clerkin. Their interpretation of Hans-My-Hedgehog especially is very, very funny and they aren’t afraid to show an acute awareness of how ridiculous the story is in a way that Pullman himself and perhaps even the Grimm brothers recognised. Yet at the same time, the actors also draw heavily on more pessimistic emotions.
It seems that there is a general feeling of respect in this production from all involved, whether it is the actors’s respect towards the stories they are telling, or a degree of freedom given to them by the team running the show. Though not completely perfect – stories such as The Juniper Tree feel too long and drawn out – this is an all-round impressive feast for people of all ages, with a visibly very strong and talented team behind it.
Grimm Tales is playing at Shoreditch Town Hall until 24 April. For more information and tickets, see the Shoreditch Town Hall website.
Photo by Tom Medwell.