Review: The Tales of Grimm Woods presents The Night of the Krampus

By December 27, 2015

Art & Photography. Leeds.


Those of you who witnessed first-hand or (dare I flatter myself) read my review of Lord Witney’s The Wood Beneath the World at Leeds Town Hall last year will remember that it was really something quite special. Part installation, part performance art, part interactive gameplay, the evening took place within a beautifully crafted set of realistic trees and was intriguing, atmospheric and highly entertaining.

So when I heard that local arts company Sneaky Experience were planning to stage an event titled The Night of the Krampus in the very same venue, also promising a set of ‘wonderful trees’, I was quick to sign up. The company are well known within the Leeds arts scene, largely owing to their brilliantly imaginative pop-up cinema events which blend film screenings with live performance in quirky venues around the city. However, in a break with the company’s usual modus operandi, The Night of the Krampus has no film showing, relying instead upon the strength of performance alone.

Marketed as a ‘magical journey through a living storybook’ – not dissimilar, some might say, to the ‘immersive journey [through a] world left undiscovered’ that Lord Witney provided last year – I was excited to see what this new project held.

A quick disclaimer: whilst I don’t want this review to become a comparison between projects – or, indeed, companies – it’s pretty hard to discuss one without the other. It’s the same venue. It’s (largely) the same set. It’s the same route taken through the crypt. The subject matter is also similar: whereas Lord Witney used Will o’ the Wisp as their inspiration, Sneaky use the Brothers Grimm. If Sneaky didn’t want comparisons between projects, arguably they should have chosen to alter at least some of these details.

As they didn’t, I feel it’s only fair to pose the question: does The Night of the Krampus live up to its predecessor’s reputation?

Let’s start with the positives. Lord Witney’s truly ‘wonderful’ trees make a much-welcomed reappearance, only this time they have been given a beautiful wintry makeover. Within this spectacular set, there are lovely moments of framing: the best being that of Rumpelstiltskin precariously perched between two snowy trees in an image worthy of an illustration in a fairytale book. All the actors are undeniably enthusiastic and, as is usually the case with interactive performance art, there are some genuinely amusing ad libs – particularly from the Wicked Witch, who is admirably calm when her interactions with an audience member don’t pan out as intended.

It’s such a shame, then, that the rest of the project just doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

The rest of the set is desperately underused. Quotes, images and props owing to Grimm fairytales scatter the walls of the corridors, but there is no attempt to weave these props into the storytelling. The library room (also suspiciously familiar – another Lord Witney hand-me-down?) cries out for further exploration, but it is mere moments before we are moved on to the next room in militaristic fashion by a wildly gesturing steward. There is also a bizarrely short journey through the witch’s gingerbread house: we are led single file past the witch (who implores us with some desperation to ‘stay and look around if you like’) without so much as a moment to stop and absorb some of the more interesting props that might have been on offer.

Perhaps it is this lack of audience freedom that is my biggest issue with this project. Unlike The Wood Beneath the World, the audience are not allowed opportunity to actually interact with the spaces that have clearly been created with great love and effort. Apparently there are ‘gruesome clues to discover along the path to the woods’ – but as we are herded (literally) through the corridors, we are given no chance to discover these ‘clues’. Instead, we encounter character after character, each of whom tells us a jumbled version of a fairytale riddled with somewhat cringeworthy Leeds-based jokes. Assuming that the majority of us already know the story of Hansel and Gretel, did we really need to have the tale recounted for us by an actor in a ‘half and half’ wig? It was all a bit embarrassing – and more than a little patronising. As one of my group noted, we didn’t want to be told, we wanted to be shown.

And what of the eponymous Krampus? He appears in the last 10 minutes of the performance, he’s very tall, and he wears something akin to a wolf costume. Admittedly he does exude a level of charisma as he maintains an unnerving eye contact with the audience – but does he embody the image of a terrifying mythical creature? The yang to Santa’s yin? An ‘evil spirit on the loose’? Not really. Instead, there is something pantomimic about his villainy which takes away from any real intrigue about the character. And, once again, he delivers a heavily scripted story rather than becoming part of any storytelling.

Overall, I came away from the evening feeling disappointed, not just for the audience, but also for Sneaky Experience. Despite the project’s shortcomings, these are clearly talented artists using great source material who wanted to give their audience a magical evening in the run up to Christmas. Such a shame, then, that the whole evening smacked of missed opportunity and left me with questions that I couldn’t find the answer to. Was this, like The Wood Beneath the World, a commissioned piece? A collaboration with Lord Witney? A self-funded project with permission to reuse Lord Witney’s set? Whatever the decision making process behind the project, there’s a lesson to be learnt here: an impressive set is simply not enough to guarantee the success of an artistic endeavour.

Having said that, I’m sure that Sneaky will live to fight another day. With no shortage of screenings coming up over the Christmas period (Frozen singalong, anyone?) they are sure to emerge from this misjudged venture with their reputation intact.

The Night of the Krampus is suitable for Over 14s only and runs at Leeds Town Hall until 3rd January 2016. For more information and tickets, visit: