Fairy tales

Would we welcome bears in Britain again?

In April this year, a jogger in the Italian Alps was mauled to death by a brown bear. This was reported as the first bear killing in Italy in modern times. But it probably won’t be the last. Bears have been reappearing in northern Italy as part of a rewilding project in the last two decades, returning to regions they had been driven from hundreds of years ago. More encounters between bears and humans are inevitable. The poor Sun and Moon bears are preyed on in Asia for their bile, valued in Chinese traditional medicine In Eight Bears, Gloria Dickie explores how we can coexist with the remaining bear species

The stepmother’s tale: Take What You Need, by Idra Novey, reviewed

All writers studying their craft should be encouraged to try translation, thinks Idra Novey, the Pennsylvania-born novelist, poet and, si, translator. Working in another language confers the freedom to slip out of their own voices, developing their own tone in the process, she told one interviewer. On the strength of Novey’s third novel, Take What You Need, an adept tale about an estranged stepmother and daughter set in a fictional former steel town in Appalachia, all writers should heed her advice. In spare, affecting prose, she moves effortlessly between her two first-person narrators: sixty something Jean, and Leah, who was ten when Jean walked out on Leah’s dad, leaving a

A topsy-turvy world: Peaces, by Helen Oyeyemi, reviewed

At a village train station in deepest Kent two men and their pet mongoose are setting off on their honeymoon. The men are Otto and Xavier Shin and the mongoose is Árpád Montague XXX; the train is the Lucky Day — a former tea-smuggler’s transportation, now home to a mysterious woman named Ava Kapoor. They do not know who she is or where they are heading. Nonetheless they embark, happy in the knowledge that anything could happen. Readers familiar with Helen Oyeyemi will already feel at home. Playful, otherworldly and sinister, her novels tend to inhabit a fairy-tale world of wicked stepmothers, haunted houses and run-away children. Mr Fox cannibalised

Clive Rowe is astonishing: Hackney Empire’s Jack and the Beanstalk reviewed

Jack and the Beanstalk is a big, sprawling family show that opens with a baffling gesture. A booming voiceover announces that Hackney is being menaced by some unseen threat. Enter an evil monster, Funella Fleshcreep, who wears facial moisturiser made from liquefied avocado. This green-cheeked ogre is challenged by the virtuous characters, Jack Trot and Simple Simon, who must defeat her and deliver Hackney from danger. The show starts to finds its way once Clive Rowe appears as the dairymaid, Dame Trot, who needs to milk a dysfunctional, dried-up cow. There are few performers in Britain who are as versatile as Rowe. He can do broad slapstick as well as

Children’s books for all ages: the best of 2021

She’s done it again: J.K. Rowling has written a captivating children’s book. The Christmas Pig (Little Brown, £20) is about a toy pig, Dur Pig (DP for short), a boy called Jack and what happens when DP gets chucked out of a car and is replaced with an unwelcome Christmas Pig. It’s also about how horrible divorce is for children, what happens to lost things and how the least prepossessing creatures can show courage and self-sacrifice. It’s also a rattling adventure story about Jack and the Christmas Pig’s progress across the Land of the Lost, pursued by a scary ogre called the Loser. It takes place on Christmas Eve, ‘a

Glib and snarky: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, at Gillian Lynne Theatre, reviewed

It’s a rum beast the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Cinderella is set in Belleville, a European city of 18th-century vintage, whose inhabitants are fixated with the body beautiful. Cinderella, a pasty Goth, rejects this ethos and vandalises a statue that commemorates a handsome prince who recently died in battle. Cinders is punished by being chased into a forest and tied to a tree but she’s rescued by her best friend, Prince Sebastian, who will inherit the throne as soon as he marries. Sebastian and Cinders are pals whose friendship is destined to blossom into romance. They can’t see this. We can. And that’s the story. Oscar-winner Emerald Fennell has

Unhappy blend of melodrama and allegory: Southwark Playhouse’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice reviewed

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a musical fantasy set in a Nordic town near the Arctic circle. Johan is a magician whose healing powers have won him the respect of his neighbours. But his rebellious daughter, Eva, has been expelled from school for scrawling ‘down with the patriarchy’ on a mirror. She’s also suspected of trying to sabotage a local factory that refines energy from the Northern Lights. The wicked factory owner, Fabian, is an emotional cripple who lives with his sick mother and rejects claims that the aurora is fading because too much energy has been extracted from it. If he continues to run the factory at full tilt, he

Pity the poor stepmother — the most reviled character in folk literature

Fairy stories were not originally aimed at children, and we do not know what the first audience responses were; but as humans do not change in certain essentials it seems likely that reactions centuries ago were similar to reactions now — when it is adults who often find many of them gruesome and unsuitable for those of single-figure age. Wicked stepmothers plot torment and murder; small children are banished alone to forests; wolves dress up in grandmotherly bonnets and shawls to deceive — and eventually to kill and eat — rosy-cheeked little girls; beautiful princesses are locked in high towers or tricked into taking poison to fall asleep for 100