After the significant blip of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” their recent West End effort that closed early after tepid reviews, Kneehigh is back in top form with this stunningly intelligent dance and musical theater version of a Grimm’s fairytale. The Cornwall-based company is never one to shy away from dark subject matter (as with its recent version of “The Red Shoes,” severed limbs feature prominently here) but nonetheless this is a family show, billed as suitable for ages 8 and up. Packaged properly, the artistic excellence, originality, and broad accessibility of the material could mean serious B.O. potential.
Production extends the company’s signature technique of reinterpreting existing subject matter (such as the Powell and Pressburger film that formed the basis of their biggest hit, “Brief Encounter”) using a layering of theatrical techniques from storytelling to musical numbers to innovative movement. The stylistic palette here is a mix of American dust-bowl and Tim Burton: Action opens with the Devil (Stuart McLoughlin) strumming a guitar and singing Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” sitting under a big, leafless tree.
The story follows a young girl (Audrey Brisson) whose loving but drunken father (Stuart Goodwin) foolishly sells her to the Devil, who then initiates her by covering her in muck and cuts off her hands when she refuses to stay dirty. One of the great wonders of the production is the elemental, non-naturalistic stage language that helmer Emma Rice and choreographer Etta Murfitt have created to represent the cruelty visited on the central character, which will please adults with its smart allusiveness while at the same time lessening the scare factor for younger auds.
The three impressively multitalented distaff performers function as a unit. All take a turn playing the central character, and initially enact the violence to her by dipping her hands in a tub full of bright red paint and wrapping them in bandages with fingers tucked in. Until the play’s final section, the woman never speaks, her inner life represented by dances and occasionally songs. The level of expressiveness and pathos all three women achieve with their faces and bodies is extraordinary, and in itself moving.
Cast into the wilderness, the handless maiden (now played by Patrycja Kujawska) turns feral, but is successfully courted by a Prince, played by Goodwin as a literally bounding Scotsman. That Goodwin plays both bad daddy and hero husband, and retains certain character traits in both guises (in particular a direct, bantering relationship with the audience) is yet another knowing reference for adults to enjoy, while kids will be enjoying the Edward Scissorhands-esque appendages that the Prince gives his bride as an affectionate wedding present. When hubby goes off to war, the Woman (Eva Magyar now) has to endure another stint in the wilderness before, marvelously, her hands grow back and she finds spoken language.
Every member of the company rises to the challenge of creative multi-tasking: Lanky McLoughlin narrates and sings most engagingly, as well as bedevils; Kujawska is a superb violinist and Magyar a particularly accomplished dancer. Brisson reveals her background with Cirque du Soleil in her ability to vocalize tunefully without forming words (a sort of new-agey scat singing) while musician Ian Ross alternates drums, guitar, bass, banjo and accordion.
It’s not just the story itself that’s life-affirming here; it’s the endless invention and creativity that Rice and her team bring to its telling. And there’s even a positive take-away message, about the power of female solidarity to overcome hardship. Even the Devil is forced to admit it: “For a feminist folk tale, this isn’t half bad!” You said it, brother.