Stories are spells, fires lit to ward off darkness. At the heart of Blue Beard at Manchester’s HOME is misdirection, whether it’s the conjuror’s sleight of hand or the craft of the dramatist in swaying the audience’s attention.

Taking its starting point as Barbe Bleue, the French folktale most effectively set down on paper by Charles Perrault, the latest production by director Emma Rice’s Wise Children company opens the fable up and, by degrees, lets the real world in. That said, prior to its harrowing intrusion, this Blue Beard has its own, very particular sensibility; a kind of gothic pantomime or glitter Grand Guignol.

Rice’s authorial tone apart (she wrote the adaptation as well as directing it), this is a tug of war between two competing compères. Each sports the titular azure facial hair. One, the Mother Superior of a walled convent, a Mistress of Ceremonies whose patter runs to the blue in its end-of-the-pier shade of meaning; the other, Blue Beard himself, a stage musician whose show of dandy glamour seeks to distract from the evil cradled in his heart. As the former, Katy Owen’s mistress of ceremonies arguably has the last word over Tristan Sturrock as the latter, drawing from the same toxic well as David Tennant’s Kilgrave in Marvel’s Jessica Jones.

With an attentiveness to detail worn with wonderful lightness, the play unspools like one long tracking shot in the manner of the Spice Girls’ promotional film for Wannabe, albeit if Tim Pope had taken a hand in the direction. Punctuated by moments of stillness, in which a pilgrim brother seeks his lost sister, it reveals itself in a shifting series of tableaux vivants, each a pop video in itself, strikingly choreographed by Etta Murfitt to accentuate the unease that maintains the hectic pulse of the narrative. The songs themselves, composed by Stu Barker, though undoubtedly contagious, lack the barbs of more lasting memorability, neither outstaying their welcome nor outliving it.

Photo by Steve Tanner

Setting out its stall from the outset, a particular effective example of this compression of expression sees Blue Beard’s dead assistant, Mirabelle Gremaud, doubling up from her part as the lost sister, singing from the confines of a wardrobe, a reanimated showgirl scuttling en point, like one of Louise Bourgeois‘ spiders.

Equally, the same approach is well-suited to the first act’s cliff edge when genre and timeline interleave with the flattening effect of YouTube, confounding the now with the then and the then with the now. As Blue Beard’s new bride, Robyn Sinclair’s Lucky throws a party with her mother and sister, teetering towards the precipice of defying a patriarchal prohibition, old as Eden, to leave her curiosity unsated, elsewhere and else-when the lost sister performs her first gig.

Then everything goes black.

If every story is a spell, then all justice is poetic. In one last tableau, a slow motion fight scene lit in livid red howls with anger, collapsing narrator and story in upon one another, bringing down its artifice like a house of marked cards.

When the story ends, the spell is broken. What then will remain to keep the dark at bay? After fiction’s curtains are pulled back and the abyss is revealed, captured in grainy images from closed circuit television, Rice insists upon the kindling power of kin and kindred, brought together. The one fact of life is that nothing is changeless and, in that spark of change, a new story can be written, a happier ending wished for.

Long after the house lights have gone up, Blue Beard still burns – in sorrow, in rage, and in hope.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image by Steve Tanner

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Blue Beard is at HOME, Manchester until February 24, 2024. For more information, click here.