The Grimm brothers’ Aschenputtel is far from the anodyne version of Cinderella we often see now. When the pair recorded the folktale in 1812, it was a gothic story – with an unforgiving Calvinist morality – of a magic tree planted on a dead mother’s grave and of stepsisters who sliced off their heels and toes to fit into the golden shoe and whose eyes were pecked out by birds as punishment for their misdeeds.
Alan Pollock’s bewitching adaptation takes us back to that original but tempers its darkness – as the Grimm brothers themselves did in later, more child-friendly editions of their stories. Cinderella (Tanya Bridgeman) still charms the birds from the magic tree and violence occurs but with no visible bloodletting and plenty of comedy. “Is this your toe?” the Prince asks a stepsister politely after she has chopped it off.
Exuberantly directed by Francesca Goodridge, the show begins with the brothers on stage, complete with hammy German accents. They conceive the Cinderella story that begins to railroad them, pushing them aside and taking on its own life. The production has more than a touch of Emma Rice, revelling in theatrical invention and mischief – a chase on stage turns into projected animation (by Barn Digital Media), a bird is a lovely puppet on a stick, flutteringly manipulated by Elzbieta Kalicka, and characters cut down a tree simply with words: “Chop chop chop.”
Wilhelm Grimm becomes the Prince while Jakob tries to wrest back control of the narrative. It brings rip-roaring charm and humour rather than contrivance, but the meta nature becomes dizzying in the second half as Little Red Riding Hood intrudes into this tale and actors adopt different voices for asides that are not clearly defined. It feels like a surfeit of imagination, wonderful albeit slightly ungoverned.
There are puffs of smoke that summon up the magic and sparkling showers of illumination in Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner’s lighting. The musicianship (clarinet, double bass, accordion and violins with composition by Tarek Merchant) is superb and some musicians double up dextrously in acting roles. The songs themselves are hit and miss, though, and there is an occasional voiceover that feeds the comedy but feels like one kitsch step too far.
Jesse Ashby gives a standout performance as the bearded stepmother (among other characters) and with the stepsisters (Emily Panes and Anna Fordham), who are ribboned, giggling bullies, they make a fantastically toxic trio. The romance between the Prince (played with hapless charm by Matthew Romain) and Cinderella is beguiling – a young, giddy and stuttering kind of love.
The comedy tips into cartoonishness in the second half, losing some of the earlier delicacy and veering more into panto mode. But this is turbo-charged stuff and the flat notes are forgiven for a greater sense of magic.