Entertainment & Arts

Grimm Tales premieres in east London basement

Little Red Riding Hood Image copyright Tom Medwell
Image caption The audience moves with the cast through a maze of corridors and secret rooms

It has been the stuff of nightmares for children for centuries, big bad wolves, evil witches and magic. Now, writer Philip Pullman's collection of Grimm Fairy Tales has been adapted for an immersive theatre experience.

Once up on a time, a group of thespians gathered in their dark, subterranean lair plotting to thrill and scare any visiting townsfolk who dared descend into their dank and eerie chambers.

Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood - gruesome morality folktales that have chilled and inspired people for generations, originally collected and published by the Brothers Grimm in the 18th Century.

In 2012, Philip Pullman - the writer of the His Dark Materials trilogy, pulled some of the lesser known tales together in a new collection of Grimm Tales.

It is from that source that director Philip Wilson has drawn the material for a new immersive theatre experience in the bowels of Shoreditch Town Hall in east London.

Led down into the building's maze-like basement by Little Red Riding Hood, the audience passes phantom-like chandeliers of tattered wedding dresses and through dreamlike corridors lined with mirrors and cobwebbed clocks.

'Scruffy salvage'

How long did it take to turn a rather dusty basement into this fairytale setting?

"It was frighteningly quick actually," says director Wilson. "It's a bit like being on a movie set, things have been gathered for several weeks but, because it's a very busy venue we didn't have access until last Monday and we were performing by the Friday so it's been quite tricky."

The audience is invited to explore the labyrinthine location. Old cupboards and chests are overflowing with decaying headless dolls and ancient paintings glare down from gilded frames.

Wilson - former director at the Salisbury Playhouse says: "They all had to be created, the world we're in, the term I used is 'scruffy salvage' and the idea is that, a bit like Rapunzel in the tower, these characters have been down here for a long time and they've been going out at night gathering things from skips and they have found things which help them tell the stories".

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Media captionThe basement of Shoreditch Town Hall in London has been transformed into a fairytale landscape

So, a length of rope is used for Rapunzel's flowing locks, an elegantly tattered umbrella becomes a beautiful bird in The Juniper Tree and a length of garden hose is the snake in The Three Snake Leaves.

"There are no theatre lights, it's all about light bulbs and anglepoise lamps and chairs that we scrounged and found. We've been raiding junks shops and boot fairs for months to throw all this together," continues Wilson.

"The venue is atmospheric — magically lit by Howard Hudson, who embellishes its handsome decay," says Henry Hitching in his review for the Evening Standard. "But the decision to bill this as "immersive" theatre seems fanciful; though it's a promenade piece, we aren't welcome to participate," he says.

Once upon a time

Grimm Tales is not the first of Pullman's works to be adapted for the stage, In 2003, Nicholas Wright scripted the National Theatre's adaptation of His Dark Materials, directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Wilson says Pullman "was very interested but very sanguine", in regards to the Grimm production.

"We talked a lot and he liked what I wanted to do. The Grimm tales were always an aural tradition about storytelling. He did his own version and brought a little bit of himself to the texts. I've read them aloud and they are wonderful to read.

"Consciously, there is always a sense that you know you are being told a story, they all start with, 'Once, upon a time..."

Image copyright Tom Medwell
Image caption The production uses scavenged materials as props

Lucinda Everett, writing in the Telegraph, says "sticking rigidly to Pullman's dark, witty text, the cast take their lead from the oral tradition of fairy tales, doing away with a narrator in favour of speaking the lines to one another. It is an ingenious move. The basement suddenly feels like a primitive dwelling, and the cast its inhabitants, acting out the tales for their own entertainment."

Gruesome events

The production doesn't mask the more gruesome events in some of the Grimm Tales. A child is decapitated by a wicked stepmother and eaten by his father, a brave soldier is buried alive with his dead sweetheart and a woman is crushed by a falling millstone.

That said, the night is open to children and adults alike.

"What's wonderful about Philip," says Wilson, "like Michael Morpurgo and JK Rowling, he's cross generational, he doesn't patronise children and there's much for adults to enjoy.

"We've said we recommend children over eight to come, with immersive theatre they're very, very close to the action, even if they know the actors are pretending, we did have a child who was a bit traumatized by the decapitation of a puppet.

"It's not gory but it's very there, there's no them and us, the audience are right there."

In his four-star review for What's On Stage, Michael Coveney says "the performance panders deliciously to the worst in all of us and proves once more that children's stories are best kept for adults".

Grimm Tales is on at Shoreditch Town Hall until 24 April.

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