Grimm Tales, Northumberland Theatre Company, on tour
A TRIP to see a Christmas show is a treat for many but Northumberland Theatre Company, with its touring ethos, makes the show that comes to you.
This might be the only option for many country dwellers but even if you live a stone’s throw from a big city theatre with a star-studded panto I’d still urge a trip to see this cracking Christmas alternative.
Director Gillian Hambleton’s show is a masterclass in making a lot out of a little – the little being necessitated not just by funding cuts (of which more later) but by the village hall stages that wait to welcome the company.
The show features eight of the Grimm brothers’ famous fairytales (four either side of an interval) as adapted by Carol Ann Duffy back in 1996, a long time before she became Poet Laureate.
Some of the poet’s adapted tales have been seen in the region before because Northern Stage, the Newcastle theatre company, made them the substance of their highly memorable Christmas shows back in 1999 and again in 2000.
NTC have picked some of the more unusual tales, including one about a mouse, a bird and a sausage that become friends – and meet, I have to warn you, a very sticky end.
There is a degree of genuine grimness about the Grimm Tales which is probably what attracted Carol Ann Duffy to them.
In Ashputtel, a version of the panto staple Cinderella, the ugly sisters don’t force their feet into a glass slipper. Oh, no! Instead they slice off their toes and heel to get a snug if painful fit.
Don’t be alarmed. Each story is told with great humour and gusto, and with an awareness of the likely sensitivity and age range of the festive audiences they will encounter.
I greatly enjoyed The Hare and the Hedgehog which tells us the fastest don’t always win the race (even though, in my bitter life’s experience, I’ve found that actually they usually do).
The cast of four, Eleanor Dennison, Louis Roberts, Umar Ahmed and Luke MacGregor, work their socks off with lightning switches between costumes and characters.
Half the cast are a credit to NTC’s InterACT scheme which, with Arts Council funding that has now been lost, organised placements and tuition for aspiring young theatre professionals from the region.
Umar had a year as an InterACT trainee in 2010 and Luke, who is from Norton on Teesside, would have joined the scheme if it still existed.
But the 18-year-old was taken on by NTC as its “Fairytale apprentice”, learning on the job as Kylie Ann Ford did as the “Dream trainee” in the company’s summer production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Before I saw the show at Alnwick Playhouse Luke said he’d wanted to be an actor since the age of about 12.
“It was something I got into at school. I found I just loved to be in front of an audience.
“I knew one of the other actors, Louis Roberts, and he advised me to go for the audition. It looked like a fantastic opportunity to find out what it’s like to be a professional actor working day to day.”
Luke hasn’t regretted the decision. “They’ve all been helping me, showing me the ropes, and I’ve been learning a lot from them,” he said.
“One thing I’ve learned doing this is that the theatre doesn’t only mean big West End shows.”
That’s certainly true. On NTC’s extensive touring circuit, the actors are also the backstage crew, setting up the show and taking it down again at the end.
Luke, judging by his performances in Grimm Tales, has a bright future on the stage.
As for NTC itself, it carries on despite losing its revenue funding from the Arts Council.
“We’re still here and we’ve always got plans,” said Gillian.
Since April, she and designer Michelle Huitson have managed to raise £90,000 from trusts and foundations and audience members on the Shakespeare tour dug deep to add £1,800 to the funding pot – having already bought tickets.
Northumberland County Council gives a little money and a lot of practical and moral support and Gillian is grateful for the goodwill extended to the company from the many small rural venues they serve.
For their part and on this evidence alone, NTC keep standards high. This audience member certainly went home happy.