Creation Theatre is a highly enterprising company based in Oxford which has seized the opportunities offered by online theatre and really made a mark in their chosen field. Last Sunday they were named as one of 13 OnComm Award winners (from OffWestEnd.com) for their summer extravaganza Alice, A Virtual Theme Park which recognised their innovative use of the Zoom platform. This week their new show, steeped in darkness, has emerged blinking into the sunlight.
Following their forays into Wonderland and the land of Oz they have now transported us into the world of the Brothers Grimm who, in this particular instance, are extremely aptly named. For this is nothing to do with the highly sanitised child friendly tales from the likes of Disney; these are the dark tortured versions originally aimed at adults and containing child abuse, decapitation, death by crushing, gaslighting and cannibalism… and that’s just in Tale 1.
Calling their collection Grimm Tales For Fragile Times And Broken People, Creation has woven together five of the Grimm brothers’ stories which have resonances with the current lockdown situation and the issues of confinement and mental health. A couple of these tales, Hansel and Gretel and Rumplestiltskin, will be reasonably familiar but the remaining three (The Moon, Godfather Death and The Juniper Tree) will almost certainly be less so.
The stories are not told sequentially but rather in sections and we move constantly between narrators. I have to confess I found this slightly irritating at first in the way that some TV programmes seen unable to focus on any one aspect for long without cutting away to something else. But gradually the cross referencing and internal allusions began to gather force and make sense and gave the piece a unified feel it might not otherwise have had.
The framing setting is of a child’s playroom filled with slightly dilapidated toys and an eerie atmosphere; I enjoyed the in joke of the station name in the model railway set. The five performers all narrate their individual stories within some ingenious mini-theatrical sets created in their own homes but given unity through the design work of Ryan Dawson Laight. He has created a dark and mist filled nether world which is childlike while not being at all childish. Costumes are equally left field and there has been some heavy use of the make up box. I was slightly puzzled as to why most of the story tellers seemed to appear quite so dentally challenged though it did provide a point of unity across the piece.
I particularly enjoyed Natasha Rickman’s retelling of Rumpelstiltskin which used some rudimentary stick puppets to flesh out the story and Graeme Rose’s The Juniper Tree was another clear strength if only because it wasn’t a tale which was overly familiar. Unfortunately, Kofi Dennis seemed to be having one or two technical issues last night (I don’t think it was me) which rather plagued an otherwise interesting fable about the phases of the moon. Creation regulars Anabelle Terry (Hansel and Gretel) and Dharmesh Patel (Godfather Death) handled their two stories with a clear understanding of the genre. If there’s one aspect I would change it would be to lose the highly annoying musical soundtrack, not because it was overly intrusive but because the words/visuals have the power to do the work without another layer being added; also because Zoom simply isn’t good with reproducing background music and it began to grate.
Having won an award for such slickly produced work on a video conferencing platform, it is perhaps slightly ironic that Creation have chosen this moment to shift gear by going back to basics and almost totally focusing on the narrative. Though this does show that they have their priorities right, it is perhaps a shame for those of us who have started to get used to their innovative approach and their full embracement of current technology. Perhaps finding some sort of middle ground would be a suitable compromise. I note that they are currently working on a version of Webster’s Duchess Of Malfi so I’m intrigued to see which way they take this. As Creation have been proving for the last year now, the only definite certainty is that we can expect the unexpected.