Review of Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales

My mother told me that you should never go to bed angry. The reviewer’s equivalent of this is you should never go to a show already inclined against it. However, the issue that gave me the Angry Reds regarding Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales at the Barge House, Oxo Tower is a valid.

The show’s marketing suggested that it was aimed at a wide age range. Fairy-tales, traditionally, are aimed at children but with recent re-tellings and re-imaginings they have gained a Gothic veneer that suits an adult audience. It can be difficult to live up to these expectations. You will, however, universally annoy your potential patrons with bad pricing. This show is over-priced. I am mean: I baulk at the idea of seeing a West End show; buy 80% of my clothes from second-hand stores; make my own lunches; and, think food waste is one of the seven sins.

However, by anyone’s standards £45.50 for an adult ticket is excessive. The Bargehouse is not a West End venue (apologies for the London-centric tone of this review) and it seems unlikely that the producers of this show thought the combinations of the words ‘immersive theatre’, ‘fairy-tales’, and ‘Philip Pullman’ wouldn’t have the punters flocking. It is also unseemly to offer no discount for the unwaged or over 60s. Nor to only offer a student discount with the added cost of buying an NUS card. Finally, the online booking system (which is the only one offered for individuals – there is a group booking telephone number) does not allow you to buy a student ticket and a child’s ticket. I am 28 and a full-time student, my companion was an 11 year old. Apparently, despite the age of consent being 16 in this country, there is no conceivable way that a student could have a child of their own.

This inconsistency would have put me off entirely but I had promised my companion we would attend and so I called the group booking line, explained the situation, and the charming gentleman allowed me to bypass the system. I was assured I would absolutely have to proffer a NUS card when my tickets were checked and so I bought myself one. Suffice to say, it wasn’t checked.

Still, I like fairy-tales, the Gothic, and dressing up and I was in charge of making sure that my companion for the afternoon had an amazing time. Thus I re-arranged my wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing outfit and got ready to immerse myself in the Grimm environs. And beautiful they were. All credit due to the set design – in fact I’m not sure I can even call it that so all-encompassing and detailed it proved to be. Tales from childhood appeared from the wood work as we waited amongst hay bales attended by a spinning wheel and gold-threaded bobbins.

But a few more issues started to emerge. Firstly, the bar, and it was a bar, was distinctly aimed for adults re-affirming the imbalance of who was the intended audience. (I counted five people below the age of 15 in our group of around 30). Then the people behind the bar weren’t in costume or character. I like my immersive theatre Immersive with a capital ‘I’. Given the spell that had been cast by travelling up the creaking stairs past spooky portraits, this oversight jarred me back into the real world. As we waited to be taken into the first performance we were entertained by a group of musicians. With no announcement, many of us missed the performance and the shape of the room meant that few had a good view.

We were then led into another room and shown our seats. This took a while – audience are difficult to lead around and there was much to distract. The ushers, like the bar staff, were not in costume of character and whilst the performers were already in the room there wasn’t a great deal of interaction between them and the audience. The seating of the audience would have been smoother and more enjoyable had we been engaged with more. Again, this broke the spell.

We then moved from room to room, with an interval, in order to see five of the six performances available. Whilst we travelled around the building another group was just ahead of us. The performers also moved from room to room so that there was a limited cast which perhaps prevented a high level of interaction between them and us. There was a couple of awkward change-overs – we caught the tale end of the earlier group as they left – and at some points the view was very restricted. At the end of the performances we were invited to look around the building. The idea being that we would walk into room where the fairy-tale characters had just stepped out.

The performances themselves were good though the writing felt stilted. There was a lot of characters saying ‘He said/ She said’ about what they had just said. Though this maintained the fairy-tale style of story-telling, it became overdone. I was also intrigued to note that as part of telling the stories in a traditional manner, the morals of being obedient, pretty and aiming to marry the prince were not subverted. This felt a little strange and I was conscious that I was accompanied by an 11 year old.

For me, though, the biggest issue was that this just wasn’t immersive theatre as I understood it. As a concept, immersive theatre is relatively new and therefore open to interpretation but I was hoping that the smaller narratives would be built into a larger one or exist within a theme. As it was without a central narrative there seemed no reason for me to be moving from room to room other than as a gimmick. In fact, given that the performances barely touched the fourth-wall, the whole setting seemed redundant. I was left thinking about what I would have wanted to see.

When looking around the venue afterwards it felt deserted but not in a way that thrilled or spoke of spookiness. I wanted to talk to the fairy-tale characters (I could at EuroDisney!) and hear their stories – maybe finding out more about why like they were or what happened to them afterwards. I suspect that Pullman et al were bucking against the trend of giving back stories to the baddies but it still felt rather empty.

I should be balanced though and I understand that my opinions are those of an adult. My companion loved the whole thing and we had a great time taking fairy-tale selfies afterwards. Perhaps if they had aimed more at the children, I would have been happier to let go of my precepts. Instead, I felt like Snow White after taking a bite of the apple: left with a bad taste in my mouth and a chance to dream of what could have been.

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