For this musical version of Daniel Wallace’s novel, John August has adapted his own screenplay from Tim Burton’s film and produced a satisfyingly theatrical show. Big Fish fits into a genre of Americana started by Thornton Wilder’s This Town that celebrates everyday life with a magical touch. At times it is captivating.
Edward Bloom is the not-so-average Joe who is our hero and, as he approaches death, he recounts some wild and wonderful tales about his life. These stories have – somewhat inexplicably – alienated his fact-driven reporter son, Will. Their reconciliation makes the show a family drama of low stakes – and the journey the latter has to take to embrace his father’s optimism is too gentle to be compelling.
Kelsey Grammer takes the lead, ably abetted by Jamie Muscato who appears as Joe’s younger self, and delivers the star factor: he sells the character of a travelling salesman superbly and is a strong enough comedian to make a bad joke go a long way. Matthew Seadon-Young plays son Will, giving a dedicated performance with a strong voice, but his character doesn’t convince. It’s a problem shared by the roles of wives to both men – capably performed by Frances McNamee and Clare Burt – who are sketched with depressing brevity.
The music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa fail to excite – a collection of try-hard numbers that feel forced and end up forgettable. Yet as a chamber piece Big Fish has charm. It’s when we see an ambition to be big that the cracks show; there isn’t the power to deliver a big West End feel here. Tom Rogers’ design is a case in point – clever, even charming, but inventive rather than impressive.
With too much sentimentality – fathers and sons skimming stones on a river is always a bad sign – the death bed reconciliation ends up uncomfortably long. I had plenty of time to check, in case I was just cold and heartless, and there was barely a wet eye in the house. “Part epic tale, part fire sale” is a description of Bloom’s life that could have been a warning – mixing the show’s simplicity with attempts at grandeur fails too many times, and director Nigel Harman struggles to accommodate the piece’s inconsistencies.
Until 31 December 2018
Photo by Tristram Kenton
The first incarnation of director Philip Wilson’s Grimm Tales, in Shoreditch, now seems like a trial run for this – a bigger and better version of the show – at the Oxo Tower Bargehouse. Six different stories, adapted from Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, are presented with enchanting insight, using every inch of the huge building as a remarkable canvas.
Grimm Tales is the best kind of immersive theatre. The location is transformed to add to the telling, but Wilson’s strong vision never loses sight of the simple power the stories have. It’s like Punchdrunk without the puzzle – challenging yet satisfying. The tales chosen are relatively obscure. Hansel and Gretel make an appearance but their story is more complex than the one we’re all familiar with. Each tale is wonderfully weird and scarily dark.
Groups of performers share the words between them, mixing dialogue and narration, creating an engaging, forceful style. The actors do a superb job conveying an underlying excitement about the stories and the telling of them, as they guide you onto the next suitably grim spectacle. James Byng stands out as the Frog King and Megan Salter is wonderful as the princess who runs away from an incestuous father to become Thousandfurs.
Pullman and Wilson bring out a great deal of humour in telling the tales and never shy away from their appalling content. Even Hollywood presents us with different sides to fairy stories nowadays, but Grimm Tales is a long way from Disney. I’d be a little wary about the eight and above age guide, the show is two and three quarter hours long for a start, but that’s probably because I don’t have children myself – I’ve heard kids can be pretty bloodthirsty.
Most thrilling of all is the detail that’s gone into creating a unique world to tell these stories. The costumes and sets by Tom Rogers are astounding: everyday props and lo-fi puppetry belie an exciting inventiveness and a huge technical achievement. With 2,000 light bulbs above and nine tonnes of rubber crumb underfoot the scale is impressive. Yet the stripped-back bricolage aesthetic works brilliantly to focus attention and captivate the imagination.
As the stories end, the audience is free to explore other rooms; further fantastic spaces to imagine other stories in are revealed. These sets are like something from an art gallery – maybe installation theatre would be a better term for this immersive experience? One thing is for sure; once upon a time doesn’t feel anywhere near long enough to explore this magical space.
Until 11 April 2015
The trend for immersive theatre reaches new heights in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall with Grimm Tales, which opened last night. Based on Philip Pullman’s recent retellings, adapted and directed by Philip Wilson, a small audience is taken around magically transformed spaces to experience the stories anew and undertake a journey of our own. Pullman’s fame should secure the show’s success, while Wilson’s theatrical creativity makes this a night to remember.
Five tales are tackled, from the well-known Red Riding Hood to the (to me) more obscure Hans-My-Hedgehog. Bizarre and macabre touches are preserved, expanded even, with a gleeful sense of humour. Following Pullman’s text, the storytelling is wonderfully clear. Unlike some theatre that takes on the immersive label, this evening never baffles and only satisfies. The stories have a rewarding personal resonance and make full use of the audience’s own imagination.
The cast, billed as The Storytellers, is impressive. Taking on a variety of roles, the players are constantly engaging and keep up a terrific pace. Simon Wegrzyn is particularly impressive as both the wolf and the eponymous Hedgehog Boy. And James Byng gets to show off his considerable skill as a puppeteer. Any bedtime story you might read will pale in comparison with the hard work going on here.
It’s the detail that makes the night. The set and costume designs by Tom Rogers are a marvel, with each room you arrive in a wonder of sights and smells. The aesthetic is lo-fi with a bricolage feel adding to the atmosphere of the location. Don’t be fooled though; the make-do-and-mend touches show off the sheer invention of the staging born from intelligence and experience. An umbrella turned into a bird was a personal favourite, but the theatrical touches are a continual delight.
I am sure that children would love Grimm Tales (eight years upwards is the recommendation) but I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t leap at the chance to run around in this world. The evening concludes with the chance to do just that, as other rooms, potential stories that have been tantalisingly glanced at as you move around, can be explored. The seven dwarfs’ dormitory made me laugh out loud. Fairytales made real – what’s not to wolf down?
Until 24 April 2014
Photo by Tom Medwell
Written 21 March 2014 for The London Magazine