Before Tchaikovsky and his ballet, there was Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann and his story. The Unicorn is serving up his original, adapted by Kneehigh regular Annie Siddons, and it’s wholesome, naturally sweet and sprinkled with right-on gender politics. Trouble is, it borders on bland, and it’s best – by a long, long way – when it gives in to the sugar-rush of a candy-filled dreamland.
What you get is a Christmas show with an edge of austerity. In an Austrian village starved of sweets, children make do with nuts. Marie (Akiya Henry) and her brother Fritz get their presents, including a traditional soldier-shaped nutcracker from their mysterious godfather. Come night-time, their toys spring to life, to be led by Marie against the seven-headed Mouse King, and off into the sugary wonderland that Siddons swaps for Hoffman’s Land of Dolls.
Siddons lets Hoffman narrate his own story, so that Sandy Grierson’s steampunky storyteller becomes the MC of a massive toy theatre, booming out the Mouse King’s voice himself with a mechanical microphone. Ellen McDougall’s production has a real hands-on, DIY quality: it’s eager to encourage the next generation of theatre-makers.
But that’s best done by delighting an audience, and too much of this misfires. Aiming for an offbeat humour, it muffles its jokes and refuses several cheap, but failsafe routines, as if wary of anyone over-enjoying themselves. James Button’s design does the same: his dainty Austrian log cabin, painted primly with flowers, gives way to a contemporary and colour-splashed Candyland that’s four times the fun. It gains from the contrast, sure, but that’s like wearing tight shoes to enjoy taking them off. Why not go all out, all of the way through? Austerity’s for arseholes.
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