Grangetown, 1913. A young girl called Stevie (Lily Beau) is about to face another Christmas without her mother, a Suffragette who is spending Christmas Eve on the campaign for women’s rights. Much to her mother’s disapproval, Stevie’s uncles gift her with a book of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Yearning for a story of her own, Stevie finds herself transported in the weird and wacky Grimmdom and assembles a chorus of fairy tale characters on a quest for a happily ever after.
Written by Hannah McPake (who also plays Mother / the Snow Queen), and directed by Joe Murphy, Tales of the Brothers Grimm is proof positive that there’s no place like the Sherman at Christmastime. Their annual production has become as integral a part of the festive season as a mince pie, and their latest offering is a treat for all the senses.
McPake, most recently Peter Quince in the Sherman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, continues to prove herself as a real tour de force both onstage and behind the scenes. Her writing is as crisp as snow and sparkles almost as much as her Snow Queen costume does: when she crashes onstage dressed like Elizabeth I as styled by Vivienne Westwood (actually the wonderful Hayley Grindle), you know you’re about to see something iconic.
While riffing on some of the most beloved fairy tales in existence, the show also affectionately draws on The Wizard of Oz, with Stevie stranded in a strange and magical world and wanting to get home. Her actions in the Grimmdom end up disrupting the fairy tale trajectories of Cinderella (Katie-Elin Salt), Sleeping Beauty (Bethzienna Williams), and Rapunzel (Sarah Workman) – and so they journey through the forest to find the Brothers Grimm and put their stories back on track.
The production plays with archetypes and doubles, with much of the hugely talented cast playing multiple roles and instruments. Kyle Lima and James Ifan play both Stevie’s stern bookbinding Uncles and the Brothers Grimm, who make a grand entrance singing a Europop banger while dressed in sparkly lederhosen – and if that doesn’t make you want to see the show, I don’t know what will. Ifan also steals hearts as a soul-searching Prince Charming while Lima huffs, puffs and blows the house down as a bluesy Big Bad Wolf.
Lily Beau leads the adventure brilliantly while Keiron Self as the Narrator (in his seventh Sherman Christmas production) holds everything together with a dollop of charm and a huge dose of silliness – he and apprentice actor Michael Morgan also get to join in on the sparkly lederhosen front, with much aplomb. Elin-Salt, Williams and Workman first take to the stage as the Uncles’ automaton-esque Bavarian helpers, before returning in full Disney mode to great effect. Williams, a finalist on The Voice in 2019, lends real power to ‘Wide Awake’, one of a host of brilliant songs by McPake and Lucy Rivers (with musical direction by Barnaby Southgate). Meanwhile, Hayley Grindle’s set and costumes underscore the jagged magic of this topsy-turvy fairy tale world.
Fairy tales are stories of transformation: straw can be turned into gold, a pumpkin into a carriage, and a frog into a prince. But while ‘happily ever after’ bookends the stories it can also trap its characters: in gender roles, in unhappy relationships, in the illusion of closure. The Narrator yearns for a name, Stevie for purpose – even the Snow Queen longs to rewrite her story. The princesses might all call on Prince Charming to save them, but he is just as much a victim to the patriarchy as they are. Even the Brothers Grimm are trapped by fame and expectations.
In a beautifully subversive move, McPake – as both actor and scribe – encourages her characters and her audience to think beyond ‘The End’: to flout the rules, to rescue ourselves, and to write our own stories. Tales of the Brothers Grimm is a feat of pure Grimmagiantion, and it proves something even deeper: the Sherman isn’t just the place you go to see a show: it’s a place you go to feel like you belong.
Tales of the Brothers Grimm is playing at the Sherman Theatre through to 31st December. There are a number of accessible performances (captioned, relaxed, and BSL interpreted) through its run, and reduced ticket prices for children and under 25s. More information on the show and how to book tickets here.