The nights are drawing in and Covid haunts the streets. So what better time to huddle together (in groups no larger than six) around a crackling fire and listen to some storytelling?
The Unicorn Theatre has pulled out the big guns with their online season of fairy tales. Offering adaptations from no less a master storyteller than Philip Pullman himself, and with an impressive line-up of performers and creatives in the mix, including Colin Morgan, Le Gateau Chocolat, and directors Polly Findlay and Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu this is an intriguing box of tricks.
With a suggested viewing age of 8-12, there are six stories on offer, some familiar, some less so: Hansel & Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs, The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers, The Brave Little Tailor, and Cinderella. So where then to start? I decided to choose one I knew, and one I didn’t, to get a flavour of the season.
Most people, young and old, know the story of Hansel and Gretel, two children abandoned in the woods by their parents, who become trapped by a witch in a gingerbread house. Settled in a cosy little wooden hut, in a comfy chair with a book by the fire, Nadia Albina does a fine job of telling the tale, lulling us into that snug story time vibe as her lovely voice draws us close. But this story is very much authentic Grimm – there’s no Disneyfication here. Pullman’s script retains odd, ancient vocabulary from the original text, whilst pulling no punches in its blunt depiction of children starving and the witch meeting a vividly horrific end in that fireplace, so Albina’s gentle delivery creates a pleasantly unsettling contrast to the unfolding events. The production is excitingly creepy, and in no way diluted for a junior audience.
I very much wanted to hear another, and at just 22 minutes per story I comfortably had time to do so. How about one no-one’s ever heard of? The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers sounded intriguing.
From the get-go Andy Umerah has it in the bag. Taking his seat in the storytelling chair, his performance is spellbinding. Using multiple accents for the many characters, complemented with clever direction and film work from Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, he delivers an ancient story very much brought up to date. It skilfully mixes the familiar and the unfamiliar, in turns humorous and shocking (the scene with the hellcats is a veritable bloodbath!) but always entertaining, keeping you on the edge of your seat and making you want more. This is a story suitable for Halloween that makes no allowances for softies, and Umerah’s storytelling is masterful.
Philip Pullmans’ Grimm Tales are being streamed free online until 21 Feb 2021, so catch them while you can. If you are watching with the kids perhaps have a dictionary to hand to explain some of the peculiar, unfamiliar words. There could also be post-show opportunities to have a chat about in what world princesses can be given away as rewards, the value of life and of self-belief, or simply about how clever children can trick adults. I am really excited to check out the others now – I’m sure it’s going to be a blast!
Directed by: Justin Audibert, Rachel Bagshaw, Polly Findlay, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, Ola Ince and BijanSheibani
Produced by: Unicorn Theatre & Illuminations
The shows will be available online via Unicorn Theatre’s YouTube channel until 21 February 2021