Image: Tom Medwell.
Once upon a time, in the deep, crepuscular depths of the Kingdom of Westphalia, brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their brilliant ode to Germanic folklore. The book, 1812's Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Grimms' Fairy Tales), was the first edition of a collection - eventually amounting to over 200 short stories and fables - that happily became a cornerstone of the Western fairy tale tradition.
Over two centuries later, a Philip Pullman adaptation of this forms the basis of an "immersive fairytale" in the atmospheric, multi-level Bargehouse building, which sits in the shadow of the iconic Oxo Tower. It follows on from a prequel of sorts, earlier this year, in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall. But now there are a whole new set of six tales, performed a fluid cast of 16, who share the narration, over a series of sumptuously decorated sets (as the ticket price reflects).
This, however, is not the sort of immersion you'd expect from previous precedents, such as Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema. While the medieval lore fascinates, and the ethereal spaces seduce, Grimm Tales is essentially a series of formal staged plays - albeit with a smorgasbord of antique or industrial lighting, and blackened wood chips or shreds of rubber for flooring - where you are hastily whisked from room to room, up and down dusty, portraiture-clad staircases. By the end, you are left to wander, unguided.
The quality of the tales are something of a mixed bag (n.b. during each performance, you only see five of the six available), from the classic Hansel and Gretel, to the hilarious highlight The Three Little Men in the Woods, as well as, lesser-known tales such as Thousandfurs, Faithful Johannes, and The Frog King. They generally tread familiar themes of princesses and promises, life and death, and inevitably, beauty and beastliness. The latter's message - attractiveness is the highest asset - proves jarringly anachronistic.
The niche that Grimm Tales is aiming for is not easily achieved - open for the above eights, but also entertaining for adults - and perhaps this is the production's downfall. At times, the script is tickling and enjoyable, yet at other moments it is glaringly poor and simplistic, whereas, when taken as a whole, the evening is of somewhat formulaic fantasy.
However, there are pleasing allusions to other tales in adaptor-director Philip Wilson's production (blood-red apples and a distinctive glass casket), an excellent use of sound (from the barely audible to startling surround-sound), and a Peter Brook-influenced style of set (bicycle wheels for sewing machines, wheelbarrows for golden carriages). The star of the show, nonetheless, is set and costume designer Tom Rogers' work, which dazzles and disturbs, despite the grim winter cold permeating in.