Dark Tales, based on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, Giant Olive, The Lion and Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town, London

  MARCH 2009  
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There is every good reason to travel to Kentish Town these days, not least to visit the remarkable theatre space above the Lion and Unicorn. The resident company, Giant Olive, have decided to make this venue its own. Dark Tales, a selection of famous and not-so-famous tales by the Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen, is their latest venture. Hans Christian Andersen? Fairy Tales? Surely that's going to be a kid's show? Oh, how very very wrong can one be.

Abi Unwin-Smith and Annie Clarke in 'Dark Tales'

The audience are invited upstairs to the theatre from the Lion and Unicorn bar by members of a nine-strong troop of Romany travellers. There is an ominous sense of entering another world, a travellers' encampment festooned with shawls and sheets and blankets, pots, pans and packing cases, all ready to be loaded onto unseen wagons and whisked away to another transient abode.

These are hardened travellers, used to living on the outskirts of society, used to eking out an existence in the only ways they know how. Fortune-telling and story-telling go hand in hand. Romany women sit ravelling and unravelling endless balls of wool. Romany men strum guitars or scribble indecipherably in leather notebooks. The audience is led (or, to be more precise, directed) to a hotchpotch of seats and tables, lit by candles and lamps. No longer a theatre, the space has been transformed by Wai Yin Kwok's deft design into a fully-functioning arena for the dissemination of make-believe and folk-tale.

The travelling troupe know why we are there. They know how to entertain, and entertain us they will with tales so dark and mysterious that any thought of childhood fantasy and nursery-rhyme innocence flies out into the cold night air. Andersen, the Danish outsider, penned tales so steeped in folklore legend, so darkened by human existence and anxiety, that in their purest sense they touch the heart and the spirit of all who hear them.

Although nearly one hundred and seventy years have passed since their first publication, Andersen's tales still remain as violently irreverent as they are bitterly funny. A fascinating juxtaposition between pagan Norse narrative and nineteenth-century Lutheran Christian morality, the tales engage with our collective spiritual and emotional heritage, making them impossible to ignore and delightful to experience.

Rafe Beckley has directed a talented ensemble of actors, allowing them full rein to discover their individual personalities and to project those personalities on the characters they portray. At first, as audience members, we feel uncomfortable to be so close and intimate with such seemingly dangerous creatures. By the second half of this stompingly enjoyable evening, all are friends, united in the common cause of transmitting and receiving tales of magic and deceit, passion and pain.

Beckley's skill has been not to underestimate the social impact of Andersen's stories. As he readily admits, the stories should reflect our own lives and the world around us. All would be in vain, however, if the combined acting talent was not so strong. Emma Manley's aggressive and dictatorial Romany leader amuses and abuses the audience in equal measure. Annie Clarke's frenetic dance as she enacts the sorrowful tale of the ‘Red Shoes' is orgasmically climactic in its religiosity, her movements mirrored by Abi Unwin-Smith who, as her siren-like alter-ego, personifies the overtly sexual Romany enchantress.

Likewise, Gemma Sinclair and Alice Birch shine as ‘Big Claus and Little Claus', bringing raucous humour to the most murderous of tales. Minna Pang's heart-wrenching portrayal of maternal fortitude in ‘The Story of a Mother', honest and emotive in its intensity, is matched by Meriel Rosenkranz's elegant and mysterious representation of Death. Finally, James Canvin as the ineffectively sincere wise man, haunted by the corporeal growth of his own shadow, is complemented by the looming presence of Stuart Mansell, menacingly increasing in stature and pride at the expense of the real human that nurtured him.

Dark Tales is a unique work of theatrical magic. Far more than children's tales or folklore fantasies, the narratives which are so brilliantly enacted before our eyes burst with enthusiasm and commitment and professionalism. Dark Tales is worthy of a far wider audience. Brave the Romany encampment and allow yourselves to be entertained and enthralled, appalled and excited, by this sensual, intelligent show.

© Kevin Quarmby, 2009

24 th March – 18 th April Tues-Sat 7.30pm
Saturday Matinees 3.30pm
Extra performance Bank Holiday Monday 13 th April @ 3.30pm
Tickets: £10 (£8 concessions)

Director: Rafe Beckley
Designer: Wai Yin Kwok
Assistant Director: Nick Field
Associate Director: Ross Mitchell
Associate Director: Andrea Hooymans
Producer: George Sallis

Alice Birch
James Canvin
Annie Clarke
Emma Manley
Stuart Mansell
Minna Pang
Meriel Rosenkranz
Abi Unwin-Smith
Gemma Sinclair

The Lion and Unicorn Theatre
42-44 Gaisford Street
Kentish Town
London NW5 2ED
Theatre Telephone 020 7485 9897
Ticket booking via / 08444 77 1000
Or via / 0871 594 3123

This review first appeared on the British Theatre Guide.

© Kevin Quarmby, 2009