Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales

Reviewed by Flossie Waite
A Unicorn Production
Playing at Unicorn Theatre until 6th January 2019
For ages 8+

This collection of Philip Pullman’s tales is very Grimm indeed. There’s the story of the widowed king who decides to marry his daughter. The little boy killed by his stepmother and cooked in a stew. The cannibalistic witch who lures little children into her home. But, told by a family over the course of an excitable Christmas Eve, these fairytales aren’t scary but deliciously dark, full of humour and wonder. Four children, gradually joined by their adult relatives, bring the stories to life with the contents of their bedroom – a tin of Quality Street is a treasure trove of jewels, and with a woolly hat and a rubber glove a boy becomes a cockerel. Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales is a celebration of imagination and play in all its forms – sometimes our brains go to weird and wild places and that’s okay.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

When the Brothers Grimm published their collection of fairytales over 200 years ago, the intended audience was not specifically children – they were for everyone. Philip Wilson’s adaptation and Kirsty Housley’s direction bring this intergenerational intent to the fore.  Setting the storytelling within the context of a busy family home, with naughty children, exasperated parents, visiting relatives and all the pressures and expectations that Christmas brings, emphasizes the emotions at the core of the tales – fear, jealousy, bravery, anger, compassion – all of which we see the family go through in the course of a night. Fantastical and gruesome though they may be, featuring houses made of sweets or a boy that turns into a bird, what the tales really explore, and why they resonate, is the human experience.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

And yes, some of it might not feel so family friendly – a sister tricked into thinking she has knocked her brother’s head off, a murdered child wreaking his revenge – but the production appeals not only to all ages, but in the same way: it carefully avoids patronising audiences or talking over heads. I laughed at the same jokes and funny moments, gasped at the same reveals in Ellan Parry’s visually stunning design, and recoiled at the same grisly bits, as the 8 year-olds in the front row. This is truly family theatre, because it’s a truly shared experience.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Passed down over the centuries, constantly changing with every retelling, fairytales reflect our society back to us. We can see that just through looking at Disney, whose fairytale princesses have evolved from damsels in distress pining after princes, to action heroes who rescue themselves and their communities. Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales shows us where we’ve come from – how great literature has drawn on these tales (hello, Shakespeare!), how they’ve impacted our culture, how and perhaps why they’ve mutated over time to the stories we recognize today. But the Unicorn’s adaptation also reflects where we are now: it captures a realistic portrayal of family life – the quick tempers and the cuddles; our changing attitudes towards sexuality and gender; and our willingness to be open and honest with ourselves and our children about life in all its brilliance and awfulness.

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