Putting a genuinely new twist on a Grimm Fairytale is no mean feat – and yet the Avison Brothers and their motley crew cast offer up a disarmingly charming and whimsically macabre musical adaptation of one of the most obscure back-catalogue grisly Grimm tales in Godfather Death. The story writhes in a gloriously realised lurid atmosphere meticulously balanced with tongue-in-cheek melodramatic humour and scintillating musical talent. Far from a grave affair, the musical themes flow from tavern folk to dazzling showtunes with ease. It’s so joyful to watch something that has such a clear sense of itself, and grips onto you with its lively spirit.
Andrew Lodge’s Death meanders onto the stage in a welcoming number which sets out the equalising, unflinching nature of their job, and how they completely absorb themselves into their role as they are aware they have no power to change the inevitable outcomes of peoples’ lives. Through a divine intervention, a couple living in plague-stricken Middle Ages Europe are given a glimmer of hope with the birth of their thirteenth child – as God and the Devil look to Godfather a child to rebuild faith and chaos respectively. In a twist of fate, Death themselves decides to take the role of Godfathering this cursed child, and as he grows up a turgid spiral of events is unleashed that will challenge the very nature of human mortality.
From a written perspective, all of this sounds very high-concept. The absolute charm of this piece is how the Avison Brothers’ script manages to distil the story down into its most human and inhumane elements in characteristically moody vignettes of Death’s character arc, and its intersection with their Godson, who soon becomes a swindling physician utilising the powers Death bestows on him to turn the entropy of human life on its head. This is well-represented in the ‘candle-lit’ imagery which takes place over the whole piece, seeing Death and the Physician swivel those on the brink of their demise around in a twisted game of back-and-forth. That’s all I can say without ruining it.
Lodge plays a charismatic but brooding narrator-cum-antihero, and I witnessed the audience delight and whimper at their reviling command of the story. A lot of joy can be extracted from simply looking back at Lodge throughout the piece, who dips between the audience, the stage, and slipping off into the darkness beyond. Lodge’s facial responses to Death’s Godson’s antics centre you along the narrative as we witness a betrayal unwind itself. The performance is unbounding, impressive, and the central axis on which the rest of the story rotates.
Jack Mailer delivers a gaunt and un-graceful Godson to Death, floating through life and drawn by the unnatural sense of purpose he acquires in his supernatural powers. Completely dedicated to the cause of undoing the inevitability of human mortality, he shies and splinters into a compassionate and brave human being as people he cares about come and go in his life. The character arc is so masterfully pulled off that you’re totally engrossed in where it’s all going to go. Mailer is flanked by the multi-rolling Aila Swan and Iona Stewart who come to take central parts in the Godson’s life – his Mother, his lover, his business partner, and eventually the ailing Queen of the land who takes a path beyond life or death. The differentiation in each of their characters is impressively strong, and the pure pathos behind curating every little detail of a character’s physicality and voice keeps the piece chugging along to its fateful end.
The musical calibre on display is utterly unbelievable, totally engrossing, and at points foot-stompingly menacing. The Avison Brothers have managed to capture the dread-inducing essence that makes the Grimm Fairytales so universally enjoyed while still maintaining their own distinct melodic voice across the whole story. The blend of character-driven songs are gorgeous story moments in their own right, and not a moment is wasted in unpacking every little piece of this little-known story. Bright and spritely Ceilidh music in a dingy pub mixes with a duelling Jazz number between God and the Devil and hair-raising vocals from all of the cast in a number of powerful ballads. All are magnificently crafted, varied, textured, and ripple back into that ecstatically delivered atmosphere. This is musical storytelling at its’ most discerning and delightful.
What captures you in the end is the pure dedication to putting this story on the stage with verve and fancy. The Avison Brothers themselves are perched on the edge of the stage providing a percussion and keys accompaniment to the piece throughout. Not only that, they wriggle and writhe onto stage as corpses and minor characters when needed. There’s such a glorious sense of fun in playing with this grisly tale that you’re bound to want to be a part of. Here, the morose and macabre marry with hair-raising vocals & delightfully spirited humour to deliver masterful performances throughout.
Recommended Drink: Pair Godfather Death with a Death in the Afternoon – punchy, powerful, and bubbling with a lurid sense of impending doom.