by Rachel Beaumont

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Scarytales and deep dark demons: Stepmother/Stepfather at The Place

Openheart Productions and HeadSpaceDance
The Place
10 March 2017
E11, £18

I wonder if Arthur Pita's starting point for this whole evening was the final tableau of the second work, where a hanged man, still hanging, dances a pas de deux with the girl he drowned (still dripping). Macabre, grotesque; tasteless, comic; ingenious, beautiful: this is what Pita does, and when it succeeds as it does here it is quite a remarkable thing.

Nothing earlier in the evening moved me in quite the same way, although a few moments came close. Stepmother was created as a complement to 2007's Stepfather to make a full-evening work, and it feels like the least substantial of the two. Nevertheless, elements are absolutely inspired – principally the setting of Fauré's Requiem, which has given my experience of this familiar (and wonderful) piece a whole new dimension. Each movement sees the ingénue (played by the amazingly tiny and innocent-looking Corey Claire Annand) mutilated and murdered in various nasty fairytale ways by six stepmothers garbed in high heels and black leather trench coats, their mouths smothered in huge smears of black lipstick. There's no doubting Pita's power for imagery – I hope I will keep for a long time the towering Rapunzel stepmother, played by the incredibly tall Karl Fagerlund Brekke, dementedly goosestepping about the stage with the light glinting off her scraping scissors. Inevitably the structure of the work feels episodic (and of course camp and silly), but Pita, aided by a troupe of excellent dancers, has the imagination and stagecraft to keep it interesting. He delivers a coup in the final movement: Christopher Akrill as the Snow White stepmother gorges on Snow White's heart and dances with two anonymous stepmothers a pas de trois of regeneration that is filled with crucifixion, pieta and deposition imagery, his near-naked body glowing against the sombre surroundings. It is beautiful, weird and also funny: doesn't she know that this is a the worst place in the world to be an ingénue? And accordingly Akrill is tumbled into the coffin that has been waiting for him throughout the whole show.

The Violent Femmes soundtrack and small-town America setting of Stepfather initially resurrected unhappy memories of Run Mary Run, Pita's ill-starred collaboration with Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin last summer. But I should have had more faith: this is vintage Pita, witty and inventive and and probably the most consistent thing of his I've seen. Fagerlund Brekke is the stepfather, a gaunt figure at once ghoulish and sympathetic whose unshakeable despair is deftly drawn in just a handful of gestures. Akrill is his ashen-faced demon of woe; I might have thought an unnecessary addition but Pita knows what he's about, and uses the pair to deepen pathos while also ramping up the nightmare. Clemmie Sveaas, as in everything I've seen her do, gets the tone pitch perfect in every scene, tracing a continuous arc that embraces grotesque comedy and genuine tragedy. The rest of the cast were also excellent, filling out Pita's bizarre and painful world.

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