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Review: Dark Woods, Deep Snow at Northern Stage

Northern Stage tries a different approach this festive season with Newcastle Theatre Company's Dark Woods, Deep Snow

***
TOPHER MCGRILLIS Gary Kitching Abbi Greenland, Paul Charlton and Helen Goalenin in Dark Woods, Deep Snow
Gary Kitching Abbi Greenland, Paul Charlton and Helen Goalenin in Dark Woods, Deep Snow

With a new hand on the tiller at the Newcastle theatre company you would expect something different and that is precisely what we have here.

“The idea that our building can be a place of chaos, adventure, excitement, danger and licence is a very important one to me, especially at this time of year,” writes artistic director Lorne Campbell in his programme welcome note.

The risk, I suppose, is that a degree of bafflement comes as part of the package.

We begin – in writer Chris Thorpe’s flight of fancy – with a boy, Luka (played by Assad Zaman who also appeared in Tyne at Live Theatre earlier in the year), lost in the woods.

We then meet a bunch of noisy storycatchers led by Gary Kitching as Johann who wears a kilt and a helmet and descends in a kind of Tardis through the trees.

In fact, the whole thing did remind me of an episode of Doctor Who, not just for the gadgetry but for the frenetic pace and the sense – from this particular viewer, at least – of trying to be a bit too clever for its own good.

There are bits of broken up stories lost in the woods (I think). The subtitle of the show being A Grimm Tale for Christmas, these are the fragmented creations of the brothers Grimm chopped up like mincemeat so mayhem ensues.

The storytellers, also including twins Mila and Lily (played by Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland, who are also a performance duo called RashDash) and geeky Will (Paul Charlton, the Geordie element of The Ginge, the Geordie and the Geek), crash about a great deal.

There are a lot – and I mean a lot – of words. This is possibly one of the most garrulous Christmas shows I have ever seen. My head did begin to spin even though quite a lot of the words were speeding over my head like a delivery from Aussie pace bowler Mitchell Johnson (topical Ashes gag).

The central runway, meaning the actors can walk up through the audience, works fine except for those at the front of the auditorium who have to turn their heads like owls. Fortunately, the device is not used an awful lot after Luka’s wistful opening.

There’s an Old Woman played by the brilliant Joanna Holden (nice to see her back on this stage) and a pig (full marks to Rebecca Wilkie who is also the show’s musical director, sound designer and composer). Playing Mother is Annie Crace.

Dashing at intervals through the mysterious dark wood are weird crow-like creatures.

There are some dramatic effects – a bit of climbing and some neat projections. One youngster was heard to describe the show as “epic”.

Perhaps my main problem with it is that it doesn’t acknowledge the audience until very near the end when the storycatchers’ eyes are suddenly opened to our presence. “Hello,” they say as if we’ve just wandered in.

The youngsters in the audience were thrilled and affable improv expert Gary Kitching looked like a man released from a straitjacket.

So much talk of stories and, sadly, this one didn’t grab me. You may beg to differ.

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