Review: Rumpelstiltskin at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Think you know the story of Rumpelstiltskin? Think again. This Christmas, the classic fairy tale gets a distinctly bizarre new look courtesy of Windmill Theatre Company’s Rosemary Myers and Julianne O’Brien. And while there’s a lot to enjoy – plenty of humour, a rocking soundtrack and a strong message, not to mention it looks amazing – the show feels at times like it’s trying too hard to be different, and it loses something in the process.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

In this adaptation, Rumpelstiltskin (Paul Capsis) is a reclusive but brilliant fashion designer, who’s so ugly his staff – a Rat (Alirio Zavarce) and a Crow (Elena Carapetis) – have had to hire a model (Mitchell Butel) to play him in public. When Harriet (Sheridan Harbridge) arrives in the city looking for a job and determined to prove her childhood bullies wrong, Rumpel helps her out – for a price. But then she wants more, and more… and with nothing left to offer, she promises to give up her most precious future possession if she can live happily ever after with the man she thinks is Rumpelstiltskin, despite the fact that means stealing him from her best friend Tootie (Michaela Burger). Soon Harriet has everything she ever wanted – until she gives birth to her first child, and the real Rumpel returns to call in the debt…

There are recognisable elements of the original plot, and the moral of the story (be careful what you wish for) is still there, but otherwise the show veers a little too far from both the source material and format, and as a result it ends up feeling at times unnecessarily complicated, particularly in Act 1. Australian cabaret star Paul Capsis makes an enjoyably eccentric Rumpelstiltskin but he’s not at all villainous, and if anything is actually quite likeable. In contrast, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for selfish, greedy Harriet when her baby’s stolen, given everything she’s done to get to where she is; unlike in the original, she’s almost entirely responsible for her own misery. All this makes it difficult to know who exactly we’re meant to be rooting for throughout the story, and the show’s abrupt, sugar-coated finale – though brilliantly performed by the undisputed star of Act 2, Ezra Juanta – feels both unlikely and a bit unsatisfying for an audience used to seeing a bad guy get their comeuppance.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Problematic though the content of the show is, there’s no denying that from a design perspective, it’s a triumph. Together, Jonathan Oxlade’s set and Chris Edser’s animations make for some truly magical and slightly mind-bending effects, and everything on stage is so colourful and over the top that it feels like we’ve stepped right into the middle of a cartoon. (The 1960s look does seem a bit out of step with the show’s very modern dialogue and messaging – hashtags, Instagram and the like – but that seems a small price to pay for a production that looks as good as this.)

Rumpelstiltskin only partially succeeds in its ambition to reinvent a classic fairy tale for the 21st century, but though it’s let down by a lack of clarity in the writing, it’s still undeniably good entertainment. A high-energy family show with strong performances and plenty of silliness to appeal to both kids and grown-ups, it makes for a flawed but fun festive outing.

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