REVIEW: Rumpelstiltskin (Southbank Centre) ★★

This was my first visit to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, part of the Southbank Centre, since its refurbishment earlier this year. I think they have done a fabulous job of the work. The exterior architecture of the building is in the “brutalist” style and was opened in 1967 and was shortly thereafter labelled the ugliest building in Britain!

The interior refurbishment has been done in a very sympathetic style to the outside of the building with something of a 1960/70s feel. The foyer area is very spacious without feeling cold and offers plenty of space to sit before entering the auditorium. There was a choir on the small stage as we arrived singing Christmas songs which was lovely. The bar / café could probably do with a few more seats but it offered a good range of food and drinks.

This performance of Rumpelstiltskin has been brought to the Queen Elizabeth Hall by two Australian theatre companies and having seen a short YouTube clip of the show I was expecting it to be fun, entertaining and slightly bonkers.

The staging is excellent. As the narrator began to tell the story, the words ran around the 3 arches that framed the stage and in those first moments I felt that I was in for a real treat but in fact I was in for a huge disappointment.

In this version of the story, Rumpelstiltskin, having been locked away behind a wall with only a rat and a crow for company, has become a world-renowned fashion designer. Considered too hideous to be seen in public, an actor has been retained to play “Rumpelstiltskin” to the outside world.

The real Rumpelstiltskin discovers Harriet a young woman who has left the sticks to go to the big city to make something of herself. Harriet is rummaging in the bins of one of his stores and Rumpelstiltskin decides to employ her as shop manager and gives her the magical Tootie as an assistant.

The major problem with the show is that in the first half all of the main characters are just thoroughly unpleasant and impossible to engage with. The rat and the crow offer some laughs, Tootie is a sweet distraction and there are some passable songs but really very little to enjoy at all.

The second half of the show does improve with the appearance of “surprise character” as he is referred to in the programme notes. Ezra Juanta plays this character superbly and gives the audience someone to engage with – funny, sympathetic and warm – it is what is glaringly obviously missing from the rest of the show.

The show is advertised as offering something for the whole family, but it is hard to imagine children engaging with this at all. Children love a “baddie” like Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, but there must be light to reflect the dark. Children need a character to root for against the baddie, but this show does not offer that.

On the plus side, as well as excellent staging, the costumes are brilliant – big, bold cartoon-esq colours and styles are used. The band of two are very good, with various actors joining in on instruments and backing vocals when not part of the main narrative. However overall the show is just a real disappointment, particularly as it has the potential to be superb.

Back to the drawing board for this production.

Reviewed by Emma Heath
Photo: The Other Richard


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