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Review: Rumplestiltskin (Park Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite

Like many others, my family had a book of fairy tales and other bedtime stories to read from when I was young. More than two decades have flown by since we last read one of those stories together, my parents and I, but the one thing I remember firmly about that book is Rumpelstiltskin. Namely that his story, and primarily his illustration, made me so distressed I was wary of the book itself when I came across it a few years later. Thankfully my childhood fear was nowhere to be found in the Charles Court Opera’s new imagining of the character – here he is thoroughly likeable, a source of good fun and brings a message of kindness.

Park 90, the smaller of the Park Theatre’s two performance spaces, has been decorated by designers Alex Berry (set and costumes) and Victoria Maytom (assistant and prop maker) to at first glance resemble a study or a home library. As furniture and items are moved around the stage to offer simple guides for our various settings, the idea of this as a space where stories are kept and told serves the production well. Likewise, Berry’s simple costume choices make it easy to keep track of who is playing what role and in which locale our heroes have found themselves.

Playwright Josh Savournin and composer-lyricist David Eaton subvert initial expectations by breezing through the original Rumpelstiltskin storyline within the opening number. In this story, we meet Rumpel as a beaten-down goblin whose penchant for oversized exchanges has been nullified by his name being public knowledge. This leads him to a villainous sorceress who turns his own tricks against him - he wants everyone to forget his name but doesn’t realise this will include himself. Alone, powerless and without a friend in the world, he sets off to find a fabled storyteller who can re-write his story and put things right. This journey takes him through an array of other children’s stories, always with a twist.

CCO panto regular Phillip Lee has a lot of fun as the villain-turned-hero, bringing a sprightly physicality to the role that makes it easy to believe that the man we’re watching is a fantastical creature. Clearly a strong singer but here performing admirably through vocal choices for the character, he excels vocally at times while being cartoonishly enjoyable elsewhere. Lee is the source of much of the productions infectious energy but is supported by a trio of fantastic actresses who cover the myriad of other roles. Emily Cairns and Lucy Whitney perform brilliantly across a broad range of both wicked and kind-hearted characters, but special mention must go to Tamoy Phipps’ primary role as Daisy the Cow. Phipps is hysterical and later moving in her portrayal of Rumpel’s first friend, and it’s thanks to Daisy that the front row should be prepared to get wet during act one.

Cairns, Phipps and Whitney also sound gorgeous when harmonising together, and I was struck during their opening verses by the quality of David Eaton’s sound design. In a smaller space where one actor is often closer to you than the other, it’s impressive that all three voices would be heard clearly and equally regardless of where each was stood. Eaton’s songs themselves are also genuinely enjoyable, allowing the actors to show off both comedically and vocally. One particularly memorable act two number combines Eaton’s songwriting and sound designing duties by structuring a song around seemingly endless soundbites – everything from Bart Simpson to Margaret Thatcher. The versatility of the music also helps pull the show together as a family event, with more traditional panto fare mixed in with EDM-infused pop numbers reminiscent of the better parts of Disney’s Descendants franchise.

This being a panto, writer-director Josh Savournin has allowed for moments of audience participation. There is the water spraying into the front row, but also an on-stage contest for two volunteers and the classic call and response the genre is known for. With slight tweaks I won’t give away, this gimmick feels fresh and inventive here, complementing the more modern touches of the story. With Larry the Downing Street Cat as a character and London’s rat problem as a plot point, you can imagine that this isn’t your typical panto fare.

Savournin and choreographer David Hulston use the space well, managing to make the stage seem much more expansive than Park 90 allows for. This is owed partly to the spirited, kinetic performances Savournin has guided his actors through, but also the whimsical and larger than life nature of some of Hulston’s choreography. Little of the dancing done in this show is challenging or technically impressive, but it brings a sense of motion to the plot without drastic changes of set and is consistently fun to watch and – at one point – take part in.

Full of charm and a joy to watch throughout, this dynamic new pantomime left me with a sense of childlike wonder and served to calm some of the fear I felt around this character in my own childhood. While unlikely to change the mind of any youngster who is less than enamoured with the original story, this variation has a heartfelt message of kindness and finding friendship that is difficult to deny. If I was only able to see one pantomime this holiday season, I would wish for the chance to see this one.


Rumplestiltskin plays at Park Theatre until 14th January 2023. Tickets from

Phoyos by Bill Knight

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