A darkened space; a crash of piano notes; a candle carried wordlessly onstage. A man plans his elderly mother’s funeral as his young daughter stands behind him, uncomprehending. All she has left of her grandmother is a key she cannot fit into any lock, and the stories her grandmother would spin of the Griegol, a shape-shifting demon made of smoke. It is a story that both chilled and bewitched her, but soon she becomes frightened that it will not let her go.
Directed by Hannah Smith, Trick of the Light Theatre Company’s The Griegol is an immersive, ingeniously crafted show that is better experienced than described. The advertising cites Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away as inspirations, but it is clear that its style and storytelling borrows much from the older tradition of dark fairytales. The Griegol itself is a looming presence not unlike the sinister figures of folklore, and we have all heard about the little girl venturing through a familiar world that can at any moment turn large and menacing. There is also a bit of a silent film-sensibility to the use of both actors and monochrome illustrations to tell the story. The narrative unfolds over the week leading up to the grandmother’s funeral; the different days communicated through intertitles appearing on a curtain-like sheet functioning as a screen. The way that the show uses stop-motion animation (by Ralph McCubbin Howell) combined with puppetry, smoke and silhouettes (created and manipulated by the cast) is inventive and impactful.
All of these production aspects work seamlessly together, perhaps most notably Marcus McShane’s lighting design and the live music performed by Tristan Carter. The richly atmospheric score continues throughout the piece: in this non-verbal narrative, music replaces speech. The result is a show that returns to the basics of storytelling, letting the audience infer things about the characters and their emotions guided by the sights and sounds we are treated to. It would be exciting to see more theatre that does not rely on words; not only would this make it a more accessible medium for many theatregoers, but it would encourage creators to truly think about how they convey their ideas.
Such thought has clearly gone into The Griegol, starting with its use of puppetry (designed by Jon Coddington). The choice to make our young protagonist a puppet is clever. Just as this might make her unreal to us, it makes the adults in the story — portrayed by actors — slightly unreal to her. By filtering much of the show through her perspective, The Griegol displays how, to a child, an adult’s grief can be terrifying. What do you do when your parent, the person tasked with comforting you, feels helpless themselves? Showing us the family’s memories through shadow play is another effective device, making these scenes from the past seem a little indistinct and out of reach. Some of my favourite parts were the humorous interactions between the girl, her father, her grandmother and her grandfather. These vignettes demonstrate the production’s childlike playfulness despite its rather serious subject matter.
Charming, poignant, and expertly performed by a multi-talented cast, The Griegol is a unique theatre experience. It is an exploration of grief intended for children as well as adults that does not shy away from being genuinely eerie — or, most importantly, from confronting the realities of loss.
The Griegol plays Q Theatre 16-21 March, 2021.