Seven dark, delicious and often funny stories, adapted by Philip Wilson from Philip Pullman’s rather wonderful retellings of stories by the brothers Grimm make for a delightful afternoon (or evening) of outdoor theatre. And the leafy sculpture park is a magnificent spot for it – each story set in a different part of the wood with characters hiding behind trees, dancing round clearings and emerging from shadows.
The seven (a mystic number in itself) stories – from Little Red Riding Hood to The Juniper Tree – present desperate childless couples, eligible princes, malevolent witches, girls who aren’t always sweet, people with cannibalistic leanings, plenty of sudden deaths and the occasional resurrection. And you’re left reflecting that there really are only a handful of base stories which underpin the whole of fiction – and Shakespeare knew them all. “Three Snake Leaves” for instance, which was new to me is The Mikado spliced with Romeo and Juliet and seasoned with Pericles.
The quality of the acting and performance in this show, confirms my view that Chichester has one of the best youth theatres in the country. Directed by Dale Rooks (Director of LEAP at Chichester) this show showcases the talents of 54 young actors and musicians over half of whom are in their first Chichester show. And the structure of the piece means that, although we see often see actors in more than one lead role there is plenty for every single member of the company to do.
Outstanding for me, was Hal Darling strutting and preening, with a voice so sexy it would seduce anyone, as the predatory wolf gobbling (or something) Little Red Riding Hood and her Granny. He is also very strong as the dishy young count in The Goose Girl at the Spring and a very charismatic, nonchalant devil (where did the Faust story come from?) in The Juniper Tree. There’s lovely work from Lucy Tebb as a long nailed, growling witch in Rapunzel too ( a different take from her interpretation of Hansel and Gretel’s witch) and Issac Sturge is fun as Hans My Hedgehog.
The real strength of this production, though, is in the polished ensemble work. They cope admirably with what Daniel Evans, artistic director at Chichester, called “outdoor audibility issues” when I spoke to him before the show. Without mics they make almost every word crystal clear despite a slight wind making the trees join in with a script of their own on the afternoon I was there. I’ve seen professionals cope less well in wooded venues. “Once upon a time” they dance/chant atmospherically at the beginning of each story to a minor key march tune. The excellent music is by Eamonn O’Dwyer. MD Miles Russell leads his accomplished young band along the path to each mini venue playing that tune as they go and the audience follows – rather like the promenade theme in Mussorsgy’s Pictures at An Exhibition. And in a way that’s totally appropriate. We are in a sculpture park seeing ten minute vignettes against that backdrop. It’s an exhibition in every sense and a very fine one.
Warmest congratulation to LEAP. I’m now eagerly looking forward to your Beauty and the Beast at Christmas.