Review: Great Grimm Tales ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Theatre

Great Grimm Tales

Underbelly, Cowgate, v61

11:00 (ends 25 August)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)

A gloriously ghastly, grisly, gory and gruesome gallimaufry of Grimm tales to curdle your stomach and freeze you to the marrow: what better way to begin a day at the Fringe?

Noel and Antonia, the founder members of the company, are joined by the lovely Colleen and techie Seb. They have cleverly crafted an interlocking series of tales which initially seem completely unrelated but which neatly dovetail into each other to make a satisfyingly complete narrative. If you think fairy tales are sweet, sugary confections full of twinkly, tulle-clad fairies and kindly old women, think again: the brothers Grimm collected the real tales that people in rural communities told around the fireside on dark winter evenings, tales that made them afraid to venture out into the woods at night – but which also gave them valuable life lessons if only they cared to listen and learn.

We are in a graveyard on a cold wintry evening. A weary and footsore soldier is looking for somewhere to lay his head, and is surprised to find a man already sitting there, who invites him to join him and share the contents of his hip-flask. He offers to tell the soldier why he is sitting there for the third night in a row, watching over the grave of his recently-deceased neighbour, a man whom nobody liked and whose reputation for hard-heartedness and cruelty was well-known. He explains how he knocked on his neighbour’s door to beg him for four bags of corn to feed his starving children.

Rather in the fashion of the Arabian Nights’ Tales, the surly neighbour responds by telling his own tale, which from time to time is interrupted by comments from the two men in the graveyard. At first I found the interruptions irritating and distracting, but the reason for them slowly becomes clear. It serves to keep us aware of the reason two men are keeping watch [three nights to save a soul, they say] and when the mysterious Man With Red Feathers appears in the graveyard and tries to tempt the watchers to abandon their vigil, enables them to tell more stories while they wait for the Man to fulfil his part of the bargain he offers.

It’s interesting how often ‘three nights’ is part of a tale – not just to save a soul, but to endure ordeals and gain the prize: and how the ordeal or trial often ends at, or has to be completed by midnight – though in the case of claiming a soul, salvation only comes with the dawn. It’s pretty shocking that in one tale a father is prepared to do unspeakably horrible things to his only daughter [graphically portrayed by our talented cast] because “what else can I do?” in the face of the demands of the devil who has tricked him: and how in another tale a king’s mother is apparently prepared to kill her infant grandson and cut out the tongue and eyes of her daughter-in-law – no attempt to be sweetly saccharine or nice here!

As always, Box Tale Soup are the masters of storytelling, and their puppetry and effects are ingenious and delightful – and at times extremely gruesome. Many clever things are brought out of the trunk which is an integral part of every show: I particularly loved the wine jug and goblet trick, and the clever bipartite lion, while blood and gore flowed in abundance. The sound track and lighting complement the tales, and the whole performance is immensely satisfying.

The mysterious witch-like figure who began the performance returns to tell us “the cock crows, the story is told – but you know the night is coming back” when once more we can terrify each other with grisly tales – if we have the courage…

Mary Woodward