The door of the crypt was opened for us, and we were ushered into a mysterious lumber room - dimly lit, hung with the rich, dark colours of damask drapes and old clothes on hangers, piled with furniture and boxes. In this Rackhamesque place, childhood magic could happen - and it surely did. From the very beginning, when eight young people nervously entered in the dark, found the book of Tales and began to read it, we were captivated.
The Brothers Grimm wrote over 200 tales, of which. 25 were adapted in the 1990s by Carol Ann Duffy and Tim Supple for the Young Vic Theatre. Of these, seven were chosen by Matthew Stevens for his HPYT production. So what we saw was an early Romantic take on traditional German folk-tales, seen through the eyes of a group of modern youngsters and their inspirational director/choreographer. The result was a lively mix of theatrical styles old and new, of spoken word, of movement and mime, of song and recorded music, ranging from a crazy Klezmer band to Bryan Pilkington`s soulful solo cello.
The tales were chosen, and juxtaposed, to give variety and contrast, and the young people responded by showing their versatility - by turns serious (even scary), joyful and downright hilarious. This was an ensemble play, and the players worked really well as team, supporting, listening to, and playing off each other. It is difficult to pick out highlights since they came so thick and fast - but I`ll try.
The energetic animals in `The Musicians of Bremen` were entertainingly observed, and the robbers suitably incompetent. In `Little Red Cap`, we had Clementine Hollyer as a delightfully self-possessed heroine, a group of supporting characters who were exactly right, and some spooky woodland creatures (who, as so often happened in the play, helped create the mood without taking part in the dialogue). Leo Shirley`s `Clever Hans` was as well-meaning in his bucolic stupidity as his Gretel (Joanna Siddall) was self-absorbed and blasé. `The Magic Table` was a small tour-de-force in which a complicated little story was told by a seeming host of characters - including a magnificently scatological donkey - and brought the first Act to an end with a joyous dance.
`Hansel and Gretel`, which introduced Act Two, was by contrast serious, even grim, with Stephanie Stapleton, as the evil mother and witch, setting the mood, till the resourceful hero and heroine (Gilles Geary and Amy-Jane Cotter) happily won through. `The Hare and the Hedgehog` was a nicely-done cautionary tale of a speedy but stupid hare who was no match for the resourceful hedgehogs, Ricki Horvitz-Crook and Harriet Aitchison (two of them - that was the point of the story). And `The Golden Goose` rousingly ended the play, with its multiplicity of characters (about twice as many as there were people in the cast) and a splendid puppet as its eponymous heroine. And all this in two hours, including an interval!
At the Drama AGM, the HPYT was mentioned as a good example of how the Society is living up to its educational duties. This is true enough, but it is equally true in a way that I don`t think was intended by that statement. For their energy, commitment, inventiveness, and their professional aplomb, the young players were themselves an education to any adult amateur actor. It was difficult to believe that some of them were acting for the first time - and indeed, that Matthew was directing young people for the first time. The play hung together as a continuous whole, but much of the delight resided in the details - a facial expression, an intonation, a well-timed line, a well-practised movement, a simple costume or prop that was just right - which spoke of the care that had gone into it, and the responsiveness of the cast.
It was good to see not only John Risebero (co-designer, with Matthew Stevens) and Alison Berryman (costume assistance) among the production team, but also some new or (nearly new) names: Jane Mayfield (producer and stage manager), Annie Duarte (assistant stage manager), Rebecca Siddall (sound) and Steve Pucci (lighting). Matthew is to be congratulated for bringing such an effective team and such an inventive project together. The energy which went into the production showed itself clearly on the stage.
It is five years since `The Crucible` brought a group of young actors together, after which the newly formed HPYT made its own memorable mark with `Dreams of Anne Frank`, and followed this with its ebullient contribution to `Oliver!`. Many of them have left for university or elsewhere, and we now have a new generation of young players taking up the challenge. We look forward to exciting times.
I knew I was in for a treat as soon as I took my seat. The familiar surroundings of the Crypt Room had been transformed into a place where imagination could take flight.
The lights dimmed. Strange noises penetrated the darkness. The door inched open and in crept 8 creatures. Were they good sprites? Evil imps? Or simply curious children? a question that is never quite answered. The tension mounts as they scuttle round the stage until one of them finds a book.
So starts Matthew Stevens' enchanting, creative production of The Grimm Tales by Carol Ann Duffy and Tim Supple. Two hours later I was left wishing he'd adapted all 25 tales and wanting to come back the next night to see it all over again. As a regular theatregoer, believe me this is a rare reaction.
The young cast showed an extraordinary range of talent. Their total belief and evident enjoyment in what they were doing enabled them to achieve such poise and confidence on stage that I for one forgot I was watching an amateur performance.
To describe all of their accomplishments would turn this review into a book so to be brief and in alphabetical order:
Harriet Aitchinson is a wonderful comic actress. Even when her character had no words, she often stole the show. In particular I adored her donkey in the tale of the three sons. You simply couldn't wait for her to come back on the stage.
Amy-Jane Cotter's Gretel was the epitome of the fragile lost girl that you instinctively want to rescue, whilst her spoilt little goat encapsulated every brat that you've ever wanted to send to its room. Lovely, well judged performances every time.
Gilles Geary captured the snooty hare to a tee and made us chuckle as the "goodfella" woodsman. His subtle portrayal of the brave and resourceful Hans was particularly captivating.
Hollyer's smug Little Red Cap was performed with such enormous relish that
it was a joy to behold.
Ricki Horwitz-Crook was the perfect hedgehog and I have never heard a cockerel relish cock-a-doodle-doing as much as he did.
Leo Shirley is bursting with talent and innate comic timing. His range is phenomenal. From a totally convincing performance as Hansel and Gretel's father, through to his hysterical Clever Hans and the wonderful old man in the woods (which had shades of Peter Cook) he made us believe every word. This is a young actor to watch.
Joanna Siddall was completely believable as the long-suffering Gretel in Clever Hans and her Dummling was charming.
Stephanie Stapleton is another huge talent with a stage presence to match and a real skill with accents. Her evil mother in Hans and Gretel was truly frightening
The skill of these young actors was set in a cocoon of inventive direction. Using a variety of theatrical styles Matthew Stevens drew his audience into a dark, magical world and kept us beguiled from start to finish.
The use of music and physicality enhanced the atmosphere of the weird and wonderful that echoed the masters of this art form such as Burton, Rackham and Hoffman.
The talented team that created the sets, lighting, sound and costume should also receive plaudits for giving the show such a compelling setting that has lingered in my memory.
This production by the Hampstead Players Youth Theatre has set an extremely high standard. I for one can't wait to see what they come up with next.