Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, Shoreditch Town Hall

Review: Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, Shoreditch Town Hall

Published in The Guardian, 21.03.2014

A museum of sorts has been created beneath Shoreditch Town Hall. It’s full of magical artefacts: a spinning wheel swamped in hay, seven half-size beds, an apple on a pillow in a glass casket. It’s as if some collector has ripped these items from a fantastical fairytale world and placed them in ours.

Designer Tom Rogers has worked wonders to make the hall’s subterranean corridors – usually all exposed brick and peeling paint – feel enchanting. There are walls of greyscale photographs and rooms of assorted clocks, ticking and chiming in and out of sync. Howard Hudson’s lighting makes fireplaces flicker and magic mirrors glow. Overhead are canopies of assorted lightbulbs and tangles of anglepoise lamps. It’s gorgeous – but it’s gorgeous in a very familiar, dare I say easy, way. It’s like a themed launch party for a new vodka brand. Kids might be taken in, but to adults it will feel a bit like Instagram theatre.

In three separate playing spaces – one lined with woodchip, another with hay, the third with tealights – two ensembles perform five fairytales. Some, like Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, are familiar. Others, like Hans My Hedgehog, less so. Pullman’s versions are contemporary and crisp, but not revelatory. There’s no attempt to extract morals or themes. Actors jump in and out of character, undermining the show’s immersive theatre billing. If you want to immerse an audience in a story, you can’t have the narration sitting outside it.

Director Philip Wilson deploys a Peter Brook-style staging: hosepipes as snakes, tennis rackets for oars. Again, it looks amazing. Rogers’s costumes – distressed dresses and vintage overcoats – add to the dusty attic chic, although they’ve clearly spent a fortune achieving it. But it’s so painfully leaden in the playing, way too cosy – what with these dark-hearted tales of cannibalism, childlessness and forced marriages. The cast deploy their best audiobook voices and speak … in that broken … up-and-down … fairytale register. You could easily cut half an hour. Instead, 90 minutes become ever more infuriating: too straightforward for adults, too sluggish for children and too vain for its own good.

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