First published in The Times, Monday December 21 2015
Theatre audiences are spoilt for choice at this time of year, with plenty of serious plays and adaptations available for those with a low tolerance for the traditional pantomime. Annie Siddons’s update of Rapunzel, directed for the Citizens by Lu Kemp, is something of a hybrid, sticking for the most part to the basic outline of the fairy tale but with the plot repeatedly put on hold for lengthy comic digressions and the occasional attempt to break the fourth wall.
This multiplicity of styles results in some memorable scenes and arresting images, even if it at times it seems an unstable mixture. Kemp’s production begins promisingly enough with an engaging opening sequence given added impetus by the soundtrack, with songs composed by Michael John McCarthy and performed live by the drummer Cat Myers and members of the ensemble. Wendy Seager is wonderfully larger-than-life as Mother Gothel, the white witch who discovers a baby in her garden (realised in bold colours on a raked stage by the designer Rachael Canning) and decides to raise her as her own.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
Time passes and Canning’s delightfully expressive puppet child grows up into Jessica Hardwick’s engaging bespectacled, ginger-haired tomboy. It’s at this point that the plot takes a jolting change of direction, with Seager’s hitherto doting mother abruptly suffering an attack of hysterical possessiveness that leads her to consign her adoptive daughter to the tower. It’s the first of several jarring moments in Kemp’s production, whose initially light, summery tone acquires an edge as the running time wears on. This attempt to darken and sharpen the story is laudable but it also produces some unedifying moments, including the scene in which our heroine gets bashed over the head and knocked unconscious by Peter Collins’s slippery Pierluigi Ambrosi, ostensibly a comic character and supposed point of identification for the audience.
Collins is also required to manage most of the script’s attempts at interaction, some of which hit home while others fall flat, the audience seemingly unsure of the extent to which they are required to take an active role in proceedings. Kemp’s production does contain some impressive set pieces, including the scene in which Hardwick surveys the world from several feet above the stage, flanked by strand after strand of ginger tresses, and the final showdown with a monstrous Mother Gothel, but the lasting impression is of a colourful patchwork of disparate moods and episodes rather than a coherent whole.