Review: Red Riding Hood (Citizens Theatre, Tramway)
Citizens deliver festive family fun with an identity crisis
At Christmas time you have two options when it comes to going to the theatre: a cheesy pantomime that follows a familiar story with a few goofy characters thrown in or an upmarket performance like an adaptation of a classic like A Christmas Carol or a ballet performance like The Nutcracker. But if you can’t decide between the two this season, then Citizens has a show for you with Red Riding Hood by Lewis Hetherington. Incorporating music, audience interaction, and some gorgeous design flourishes, Hetherington and director Dominic Hill tell a version of Little Red Riding Hood you won’t have heard before. Red (Cindy Awor) isn’t just delivering cookies, she’s on a mission to save Christmas.
This performance sounds like a perfect middle ground between the binaries of festive performances, but in practice, it isn’t such an easy pairing. It flits between tones, unable to decide between being fun and fleeting or timeless and dignified. The audience interaction, for example, is like a half-baked pantomime with boos and cheers for most of the performance, until a moment of theatrical genius at the end where the audience is encouraged to wave their socks around to signal for Santa. This is a play-with-music, featuring a full drum set on stage amongst other instruments, but we don’t get the corny fun of a sing-along or the extravagance of an all-out musical number, just a few very unmemorable songs and clunky choreography. Most obvious though is the design, by Jessica Worrall. In the first act the design features a lifeless red brick curtain and a mum in a grey tracksuit, but when the curtain parts we are treated to a visual feast of skinny trees, a bright full moon, gently drifting snow, and mysterious creatures with fur coats and twigs covering their faces. If Eurovision took place over Christmas, it would look something like this. I know which one I prefer, but what is more bothersome than anything is the inconsistency. There’s something to be said for urban retellings or fairy-tales, but this performance has too much magic in it to qualify as one. A scary wood shouldn’t be so much more beautiful than its urban counterpart that we resent returning to it at the end of the play.
Photo Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Both the writing and the directing have to take some of the blame, and yet both have their moments. The staging is never boring, and the introduction of the wolf, at first just a pair of eyes leering through the dark, is bound to wind any child around its finger. Similarly, Hetherington’s writing has its moments and is mercifully free of toilet humour save for some squelching mud. But all the time there is a sense that everything is just ever so slightly off. At one moment, the wolf (who in this version is just a big puppy) playfully pushes mugs off a table. But isn’t that something that cats are known for, not dogs? Details, details. Another time, a party is coming to an end, and a frog puppet comes out to sing a sad song ala “It’s Not Easy Being Green”. Why exactly? Don’t think about it too hard. Red solves a mystery by remembering something Granma had said earlier about the wolf’s “big beautiful eyes”! Were we meant to remember that ourselves? It’s moments like that, where everything doesn’t quite add up, that ultimately make the performance seem messy, unpolished, and even padded which is the last thing I would expect from such a short performance.
But disjointed as it is, some parts stand out as special, and one of the most random yet most successful is Roberta Trotters, played with relish by Francesca Hess. She’s a pig in a blanket with all the sass and swagger of a 1920s Hollywood starlet, transatlantic accent at all. She’s not in the show for long, but she’s hard to forget. Less welcome is the constant interruptions of Kevin, played by Michael Guest, a narrator whose defining trait is that he writes everything down. Which he tells us. A lot. Guest to his credit throws himself into the role – he has that naturally engaging quality of a CBBC presenter but somehow even more animated. It is a shame how grating his character becomes, not so much narrating from afar but actively stealing attention away from the main focus, like when he covers his face and glasses in clothes pegs.
The plot revolves around a lost romance between a Christmas-hating councillor (Ewan Miller) and an eco-warrior Grandma (Maureen Carr). Carr’s character is a nice twist on the well-worn “bad Grandma” trope, and she manages to be both sweet as pie and tough as nails. Miller’s performance as a bureaucratic Grinch is frequently like watching a zany John Cleese impersonation. Here is someone who has worked out that if you throw yourself to the ground and leap on tables enough the children in the audience will laugh, and more power to him. More importantly, he and Carr have great chemistry, even if it is let down by the awkward choreography around a child’s bed, which you can see choreographer Chris Stuart Wilson has tried his hardest to avoid making saucy.
With so many vibrant characters fighting for your attention, the one who gets lost is Red. She is written, first and foremost, to be an inspiration to children – she’s adventurous, she loves Christmas and superheroes, and she learns to be kind and empathetic even when it’s scary. But she has no characteristics outside of her aspirational qualities. All the other characters have jokes, foibles, quirks, something about them that would make a child say “that’s my favourite character”. Meanwhile, poor Red is relegated to the role of bland inspiration. Despite the weak role, Awor puts in a really solid performance. Many, dare I say most, grown actors can’t capture the stroppiness, innocence, or charisma of a child without turning it into parody, but Awor demonstrates that she is more than up to the job.
Photo Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
In spite of its flaws, Red Riding Hood is wrapped up on a note of warm winter cheer, and given the laughs, cheers and boos from the target audience, the performance achieved what it set out to do. It may not have the same lasting power as previous Citizens successes like Hill’s much-loved production of A Christmas Carol, but this festive serving has just enough pigs in blankets to make up for the sprouts. Three stars.
Whispers from the Crowd: "I really liked it! My favourite character was Kevin, and I liked the bit with the socks, and I liked the bit with the wolf getting into the house."
Red Riding Hood will play at Tramway until 23 December 2022