Once upon a time, there lived a king and his three daughters. One of these daughters was a rather bitchy puppet (yes, an actual puppet). The other; an intellectually challenged reject. But the youngest – she was by far the King’s favourite. The youngest, known as ‘Girl’, would often embark on outdoor adventures. One day, Girl was out a-wandering in the shade of the dense forest, when she came across the most beautiful sight. A golden band of light! Mesmerised, she followed its glow and stumbled across its creator, King Valemon, who happened to be cursed to live as a bear by The Queen of the Trolls. Girl was desperate to keep the golden ring and in exchange she gave herself to the magnificent creature. Valemon seized the opportunity and took her back to his castle; despite her father’s best efforts. For two years and eleven months, Girl lived with Valemon, fell in love with him and slept by his side, night after night. However, with the departure of the sun, the bear turned into a man with the darkness cloaking his true face. This didn’t stop her bearing (excuse pun!) three of his children. Valemon's secret forced him to keep Girl in the dark, so he sacrificed their babies and placed them in the care of distant families. One day, Girl was permitted a visit to her father and sisters, because Valemon realised how lonely it must be to live with a bear in darkness. After hearing about her coming-of-age, the sisters convinced Girl that she must see his face, and handed her a candle and matches. Sure enough, Girl gave in to temptation. Due to the broken bond of a three-year spell, Valemon and Girl were forced into battle with The Queen of the Trolls who lived at the highest point of the treacherous Glass Mountain...

...But I’m not going to spoil the ending. (Plus I have a word count to adhere to!)

Needless to say, this is a magical tale that sits somewhere in-between Beauty and the Beast and Brothers’ Grimm. The evil Queen of the Trolls has some disturbing flights of fancy that matches the darkness of classic fairytales; she indulges in the thought of turning her ex-tailor’s skin into stockings. The story is rooted in wonder and entwines dreams, nightmares and reality.

Writer and director Hannah Mulder takes what is essentially a children’s story and turns it into a sensory experience to be enjoyed by all, young and old. The inventive direction embraces a sense of youthful delight and the show is a field day for the imagination! My inner child was rejoicing within the constraints of my otherwise cynical self.

Rachel Canning, designer and puppet director, has to be praised for the hour-long visual feast. And to put something straight – they are MORE than just puppets. They become real, living, breathing creatures. As we follow the twists and turns of the forest and the plot, we forget they are inanimate objects engineered by actors. A memorable moment that perhaps demonstrates this declaration is when a child puppet kisses Girl on the forehead. The result? An abundance of AAAW’s echo around the auditorium. Seriously. The puppets are real.

Through a combination of design, movement, physical theatre, singing, music and characterisation, the talented cast magically transform the space and the audience are invited to partake in the adventure. Simple but effective visual aids and sound effects are used throughout the show. A number of aspects are vocalised, including a squeaky gate, a bees’ nest and the auditory backdrop to the forest.

The narrator of the story (Arran Glass) is a marvellous story-teller. Using direct eye contact and other storytelling techniques, Glass engages the audience and verbally paints pictures with enthusiastic ease. Clare Fraenkel as Girl encapsulates a sense of raw innocence – you can practically see her eyes twinkling. As for King Valemon (Chris MacDonald)... well Girl isn’t alone in falling in love with the bear. MacDonald’s physicality and stage presence transforms the actor and puppetry into a believable bear – which considering the size of the space is quite a feat. The two older sisters are both played by Laura Cairns. Cairns interchanges character within every couple of sentences; and the challenge is well met. However, I found the puppet sister more believable than the real sister. Odd. Cairns is also a suitably grotesque and larger-than-life (literally) Queen of the Trolls – and bears an uncanny resemblance to Tubbs from The League of Gentlemen!

However, despite the tangible and gripping theatricality of the piece, there are some lost moments, throw-away lines and unfulfilled comic climaxes, which is a real shame. There is a scene between The Queen of the Trolls and Valemon which feels a bit long and awkward; the energy momentarily slips and there is a noticeable lack of commitment to character.

But overall, this is certainly an inventive, joyful, provocative piece of story-telling genius. A really clever, moving piece of theatre. My puppet cherry has been popped (there’s something I never thought I’d say!) and I want more! 

The Girl with the Iron Claws, at Soho TheatreJo Sutherland review The Girl with the Iron Claws at the Soho Theatre.4