A modern old fashioned morality tale, with catwalk pizzazz and hashtags

It’s the Christmas holidays and you’re at the theatre watching a reimagined fairy tale. There are songs, garish costumes, audience interaction and innuendo – but this is not a pantomime.

Where are you?

At the Southbank Centre watching Rumpelstiltskin with a South Australian twist.

Windmill Theatre Co and State Theatre Company South Australia have travelled from Adelaide to share their loud, proud and hyper-modern take on the Brothers Grimm classic.

This adaptation sees the gold-spinning goblin transformed into a “master of fa-shun” – a bespectacled couturier whose designs are so coveted that the socks alone sell for £350.

Our protagonist falls for the golden-haired Harriet Stack, an ambitious country girl determined to own “shiny things” and become a star. He gives her a job as his boutique’s store manager and, in exchange for her most precious possessions, helps her climb the ladder to society’s upper echelons.

Paul Capsis is mesmerising as our “breakable, bruisable, betrayable” protagonist. His voice blazes with the cabaret pizzazz for which he’s known in his homeland, with a vocal range evoking Prince in his Purple Rain heyday.

His dialogue – both sung and spoken – is riddled with lamentations on greed and superficiality, constantly spotlighting him as the musical’s moral mouthpiece. When he is praised for his extensive fame and fortune, Capsis responds with melancholic resignation: “I just give humans what they think they want.”

Meanwhile we can’t quite decide whether to revile or relate to Sheridan Harbridge’s Harriet.

On the one hand she bristles with the blinkered ruthlessness of a celebrity wannabe, on the other she brims with the wide-eyed naivety of a clueless small town girl – she is both the worst and most celebrated of female stereotypes.

Tormentors warble jeeringly at her in the play’s second half – “No one loves a golddigger with a rock-hard soul” – but they only disparage her misguided life choices once she has cast them aside. By this point, Harriet is desperately searching for her stolen baby and has transformed into a grief-stricken mother, willing to sacrifice everything to save her innocent child.

If this sounds too schmaltzy for an evening of festive light-heartedness, remember the comic brains behind it all are Aussies – they don’t do effusive sentimentality.

In reality, the child – known simply as Baby – is not the bundle of perfection described lovingly by the characters, but a stocky, fully-grown man in a pillowy pink playsuit.

Ezra Juanta, who plays Baby with just the right level of hulking goofiness, brings the action to a joyful climax when he finally drops his goo-goo speak to burst into a show-stopping solo for the penultimate scene.

“Sweet babies of the world unite,” he sings in a boomingly soulful baritone as the play reaches its obligatory happy ending.

The cast is small – just seven characters and two musicians – but their dynamic is convincing enough and their energy palpable enough to fill the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Alirio Zavarce charms as the designer’s voluptuously camp, quasi-Austrian accented sidekick and Elena Carapetis is fiercely sharp as the business-focused Crow. Mitchell drips with lanky insecurity as Malcolm – Rumpelstiltskin’s “very sexy” commercial double – while Michaela Burger is suitably exhausting as the shrill but sincere Tootie.

When writers Rosemary Myers and Julianne O’Brien decided to revamp Rumpelstiltskin, they knew they wanted to modernise the story while preserving its original folk tale purpose – to entertain while teaching a valuable lesson. So they created a version that’s as much about delighting families with silly wise-cracks and visual pyrotechnics as it is about denouncing a hashtag world of illusory perfection.

The message isn’t subtle, the songs aren’t particularly memorable and the jokes are sometimes crude, but what do you expect? It’s fun, it’s energetic and its “whoopsies” make the kids laugh.

In other words, it’s Christmas-ish – just with a bit less Widow Twankey and a bit more Down Under.

13 December – 6 January 2019

Monday – Sunday: 2pm, 5pm & 7pm (Standard: £20 – £40)

Running Time: 120mins (with interval)

For ages 8+

Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, SE1 8XX

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