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.

Review: Knock Knock at RADA Festival

Now in its seventh year, the annual RADA Festival brings together past graduates and a network of theatre-makers from different backgrounds in a ten-day celebration of new writing, emerging talent and the possibilities of theatre today. Key among the aims of the festival is to ensure that theatre is open to all; in line with this objective, tickets start at £5 and the three headline shows each place a strong emphasis on accessibility.

For Hot Coals Theatre, this is nothing new: since 2008 the company has specialised in work that’s fully accessible to d/Deaf and hearing audiences, and their latest show Knock Knock is also designed to be accessible to all ages. highly visual performance style, combining comedy, clowning and physical theatre, removes any need for spoken word or sign language while still ensuring the story and its message are easy to understand.

Photo credit: Hot Coals Theatre

Modern fairy tale Knock Knock tells the story of a woodcutter whose solitary existence is interrupted when a woman he’s never met before knocks at his door. It’s love at first sight, but when they both succumb to the pressure to live up to “traditional” gender roles, the happiness of their perfect union is threatened. Can they see past what’s expected of them and live the way they want to, or is their relationship doomed?

It’s impossible not to be charmed by the story’s loveable characters, who are brought beautifully to life by Hot Coals founders Jo Sargeant and Clare-Louise English. Spoken word proves to be unnecessary as the two communicate their thoughts and emotions through movement and facial expressions (Sargeant’s twinkly eyes above her bushy beard are a particular highlight). We share all their joy and heartbreak, and also enjoy some moments of cheeky humour that lift the characters out of the two-dimensional fairy tale world and make them real, imperfect human beings we can relate to.

A meticulously observed set also aids the storytelling, dividing the stage in two so the characters can move easily between their cosy living room and the mysterious, magical woods just outside their door. The structure of the show is based around the establishment of patterns; the opening sequence takes turns to introduce the two characters in their individual routines, while the second half of the story shows how their domestic activities change little by little as each day passes. Visually this works very successfully to demonstrate the gradual transition in their lives – we can see the way things are going long before they do – although the musical soundtrack does start to become a bit overbearing by the third or fourth repetition.

Photo credit: Hot Coals Theatre

Sweet, funny and with a powerful and very topical message for audiences of all ages, Knock Knock packs a surprising emotional punch. Within minutes, I was completely caught up in the story and rooting for the characters to resist the stifling social expectations that stand in the way of their happy ever after, both as a couple and as individuals. All in all, it’s a very worthy headliner for the RADA festival, and hopefully a show with a great future.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it…

Review: Rapunzel at Chickenshed

If you thought Rapunzel was the story of a girl sitting in a tower waiting for a handsome prince to rescue her – think again. Chickenshed’s ambitious and heartwarming version of the well-known fairy tale is notable not only for its conspicuous lack of princes, but also for a heroine who more than knows how to take care of herself and the people she cares about. Nor is the story all about Rapunzel; we spend just as much time discovering the magical world in which she lives, and following her parents as they search ceaselessly and with unwavering – and ultimately rewarded – hope for their stolen child.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

The story, written and directed by Lou Stein, begins in the attic of a house on the outskirts of London, where six children and their childminder Hazel fall asleep while reading stories. They’re spirited away into Hazel’s dream, in which she’s Rapunzel and has been locked in a tower by Gothel the Witch. These leaves her young charges alone in the woods, where they encounter many magical creatures, among them dryads, underground gnomes and hinky punks. Meanwhile, the Kind Kingdom ruled by Rapunzel’s parents is populated by artisans, royal servants, urchins and more.

When all these groups come together on stage in one of Dave Carey’s rousing ensemble musical numbers, it’s a pretty awesome sight. The total cast for the production numbers 800 (with four rotating teams taking their turn at different performances) and brilliantly showcases Chickenshed’s mission to create inclusive theatre. This show has a role for everyone, and though this means the story at times gets a bit confusing, the overwhelming enthusiasm from all involved is far more joyous to watch than a simpler plot or a smaller, more polished cast would be.

Which is not to say there isn’t a considerable amount of talent on display. Cerys Lambert is a feisty Rapunzel with a beautiful singing voice; Philip Rothery nails the physical comedy in his role as Henry the clumsy woodsman; and Gemilla Shamruk steals the show at the end of Act 1 with Gothel’s dramatic solo number, Don’t Mess With Me. The show also features signing throughout, incorporated seamlessly into the performance of Loren Jacobs and Belinda McGuirk as dryads, and a fantastic band tucked away at the back of the stage.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Nor is it accurate to say this production isn’t polished – managing a fairly complicated plot whilst getting that many children on and off stage with a minimum of fuss is no easy task, yet somehow everyone always ends up in the right place at the right time. This is in no small part thanks to Lucy Sierra’s brilliantly inventive set, which is riddled with secret trap doors, balconies and hidden tunnels, allowing multiple ways in and out so that the action can always keep flowing.

The show is advertised as “Rapunzel as you’ve never seen her before!” and this production certainly delivers on that promise. Along with a magically entertaining story, enjoyable solo performances and toe-tapping tunes, this version sends us away with three particularly powerful messages: look out for each other, don’t fight, and never give up hope. Most importantly, it’s all performed by a passionate, diverse cast whose joy is infectious and truly uplifting. This was my first visit to Chickenshed – and I hope it won’t be the last.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Catherine Lomax, Gordon Craig Theatre

It’s nearly Easter, and at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage that means one thing: a new family musical. This year, it’s a fresh take on classic fairy tale Rapunzel, featuring original songs and brand new characters created by Catherine Lomax, Phil Dennis and Khiley Williams – and it’s proved so popular that extra dates have already been added for later in the year.

Rapunzel was one of my favourite stories when I was a little girl, so following the success of last year’s Easter Musical, Alice in Wonderland, we knew we wanted to select another literary classic or fairy tale, and Rapunzel instantly came to mind,” says Catherine, who’s also directing the show.

Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre
Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre

“Everyone knows the basic story of Rapunzel but Phil, Khiley and myself loved the idea that we would have freedom to create a whole host of characters to develop the story. We all read as many different versions of the fairy tale as we possibly could and then discussed what we loved the most; we were really keen on creating a production that appealed to children but also entertained parents and adults, and I don’t doubt that’s what we have created. The story may be a classic fairy tale, but we’ve created characters with lots of one liners for the parents so that they can enjoy their trip to the theatre just as much as their children!”

The show tells the story of Sophia and Karl, who are desperate for a child of their own. “One night Karl breaks into Gothel’s garden looking for a herb that will help his wife fall pregnant,” explains Catherine. “Gothel discovers Karl and agrees to help him but on one condition – Gothel must be given the child when she turns sixteen years old! Desperate Karl agrees to the demand and so on his daughter’s sixteenth birthday, when Gothel arrives to stake her claim, Karl and Sophia are powerless to defeat her.

“Two years pass with Rapunzel locked away in a tower, with only a bird, Viktor, for company. Despite using her imagination to create adventures in her head, Rapunzel longs to be outside having adventures of her own. Fortunately Prince Freddie overhears her singing and discovers her trapped in her tower, but can he –  and true love – save the day?”

Catherine’s loved joining forces with Phil Dennis and Khiley Williams again: “We’ve all worked together as creative teams on various musicals and pantos over the last five years. It’s quite a privilege to work with your best friends and create something you are truly proud of.”

She’s also more than a little excited to be working with the show’s recently announced cast. “Samantha Noel will be playing Rapunzel; she has a fantastic voice and a real warmth and friendliness that definitely comes across on stage. She is the perfect Rapunzel and we all fell in love with her at the audition. Craig Armstrong and Cameron Leigh are two of the most versatile performers who have both worked at the GCT before, they’re back for Rapunzel and I don’t doubt that their larger than life characters will make this show sensational!”

Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre
Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre

Catherine’s been resident director and producer at the Gordon Craig for seven years, having moved into the role after running her own touring production company. “I think the Gordon Craig is unbelievably special because of the people who work here. Our backstage crew are fantastic, they will explore every option possible to make sure all of our shows are the very best they can be. The FOH teams, Box Office, Marketing department and all of the teams really get behind all our projects.

“And we’re only 20 minutes from Kings Cross, which does mean audiences can just as easily travel to shows in the West End – but it also means we get some fabulous stars who discover the Gordon Craig is really commutable.”

The Easter run of Rapunzel at the Gordon Craig Theatre has already sold out, but tickets are now on sale for additional dates 27th-30th July. Get them while you can…