One of the reasons fairy tales are an enduring and popular form of storytelling is that they present instantly recognisable archetypes and a strong moral framework. In more cynical times the “they all live happily ever after” resolution once good invariably triumphs over evil is somehow seen as less desirable and perhaps even a weakness as the world seldom works that way. Moral complexity and ambiguity rule the day as evidenced by grimmer, grittier takes on those other great fables, the comic book superhero.
Fairy tales aren’t immune to such reinterpretations with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods a prime example. What cost does “happily ever after” demand? Fractured attempts a similar subversion with the tagline: What Disney didn’t tell you about schoolyard wolves and the lure of poisoned apples.
Developed by The Actors’ Hub’s Gap II students this self-devised piece warps well known fairy tale characters and tropes into a storyline where evil wins the day. The key difference is that fairy tales, as well as having clear archetypes for its characters, also have distinct storytelling patterns. The hero or heroine typically enters a special world to undertake a task or quest to defeat some kind of villain or challenge and then return with whatever prize comes with victory. There’s lots of rescuing of princesses, slaying of dragons, reversing of magic spells, defeating of evil witch/sorcerer/ogre/insert villain of choice. It’s a familiar story pattern ingrained in our DNA and explicitly explored by Joseph Campbell and later utilised by Christopher Vogler to become, for a long time, the pre-eminent screenwriting template in Hollywood.
Here though the germ of a good idea – that the storybook of each presumptive hero or heroine is being altered or even erased due to a magic potion – is lost in unfocused storytelling. All the elements are there – evil sorcerers, princes, princesses, a dark forest, a ball, wolves, poisoned apples - but I was unsure of the task or quest, which character(s) was the presumptive hero/heroine, what the stakes really were, and what was driving the story forward.
The scene is set with three cackling sorcerers of some description (Benjamin Constantin, Andrew Dunstan, Zach Clifford) brewing a magic potion. A pack of wolves headed by Butch the Bulldog (Nicholas Allen) and Blackheart the Beagle (Tyler Lindsay-Smith) entice a bored Prince Eric (Christian Tomaszewski) and his royal buddy Prince Kristoff (Quintus Olsthoorn) to come to a ball where three princesses will also be in attendance – Ariel (Lauren Thomas), Cindy (Sarah Papadoulis), and Bella (Grace Chapple). Another Prince – Adam (Daniel Moxham) – appears entranced by Cindy after an encounter in the woods. Various characters eat the poisoned apples that contain the magic potion and one of them disappears. The sorcerers triumph having altered all of the other characters’ storybooks as a result. There is no rescue, no quest, no happy ending.
A common fault with self-devised pieces is the lack of narrative drive leading to any kind of real conflict and climax. Here the princes are bored, the princesses seem more interested in hooking up with someone at the ball, and the wolves are just being mischievous. The only characters with any real motive are the bad guys and possibly Prince Adam though his character isn’t explored in any great depth. This means there’s no narrative momentum or the normal rhythms and turning points you would expect.
Lots of references to fairy tale characters are tossed into the dialogue but this was all surface level. Even the concept of the storybook was muddled as each character also had a ‘mirror’ that was used a surrogate for the trusty mobile phone with a couple of ‘elfies’ taken along the way. A ‘Tinderella’ gag might get a cheap laugh but such references felt incongruous and tended to undercut the fairy tale context.
Putting aside all the storytelling problems, it’s clear that The Actors’ Hub puts an emphasis on physical movement and voice work in their training. The wolves are a rambunctious bunch with energetic displays as they tumble over each other to amuse Prince Eric. The forest is well portrayed by actors contorted into different poses, some atop the other. Plenty of howling and cackling, while tending to wear out its welcome, showcased a full-throated approach.
The pick of the performances included Thomas as a prickly Ariel, Chapple as the virtuous Bella, while Tomaszewski made for a slightly pompous and languorous Eric, and Moxham intrigued as Adam. I would have liked to have seen his character better utilised as it felt as if he could have been the classic underdog hero.
There’s no doubt this was an exuberant performance and that there’s potential in this group of actors. However, no amount of enthusiasm and craft can make up for what was a jumbled storyline of missed opportunities.