Strange Tales

Dec 4 2019 | By More

★★★☆☆  Cultural collision

Traverse Theatre: Tues 3 – Sat 21 Dec 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

There are certainly moments of magic in Strange Tales, the Christmas co-production between Grid Iron and the Traverse, but they are too few and far between.

Co-writers and directors Ben Harrison and Pauline Lockhart have created an adaptation of a selection of Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, a 17th century collection by the Chinese writer Pu Songling.

Luna Dai. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The tales presented here are an effortless mix of the everyday and the fantastic, adapted from new translations by Ewan Macdonald. Apparently ubiquitous in China but never before staged in the UK, the stories of romance between ghosts and the living, of troubling fox spirits and vengeful demons, are never less than intriguing. When presented in sequence rather than as discrete elements to be dipped into, however, there is a definite sense of repetition.

This is despite the three performers – Lockhart, Luna Dai and Robin Khor Yong Kuan – being eager and capable storytellers, with Dai in particular being a fascinating presence, and Lockhart and Harrison’s direction adding variety.

pleasing cultural collision

There is a pleasing cultural collision at work here. The ‘Scottish’ parts help to forestall any suggestions of cultural appropriation, and add some local humour tinged with panto. There is also a clever suggestion that, however weird these stories may seem, they have nothing on some of the more bizarre elements of Western traditions represented by the Bible.

Robin Khor Yong Kuan and Pauline Lockhart in Strange Tales. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

However, there are definite structural infelicities. What is described as an ‘immersive’ production, as might be expected from Grid Iron, seems rather like a great many conventional pieces of theatre. There are different media and techniques in play, but it is in essence a fairly straightforward theatrical presentation of existing stories. It is done with considerable grace and some economy, but the various add-ons could show more imagination.

The video effects from Bright Side Studios add atmosphere, but are much less successful when the performers are called upon to respond to them. This is particularly disappointing considering that there are more traditional uses of live effects designed by Fergus Dunnet. These use misdirection, sleight of hand, stage furniture and props that work elegantly and effectively. There is also some well-used puppetry, while Karen Tennent’s design, all ghostly shrouds and huge moons, is particularly striking.

Luna Dai and Robin Khor Yong Kuan. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

There are times when the performers want to interact with the audience, but these are half-hearted and unnecessary. Attempts to link the material to the lives of the actors, meanwhile, do not always ring true – something that could also be said of the explanation of the stories’ morals, or the attempt to inject genuine jeopardy that seems an afterthought.

The biggest complaint of all must be about the show’s over-arching format. Since there are so many stories to choose from, there could have been an infinite number of combinations in which to present them, and the one that has been chosen is not necessarily ideal.

somewhat unforgiving

The traditional layout of Traverse One, which entails sitting in the same position with no legroom to speak of, can be somewhat unforgiving. Any shows that pass the 90-minute mark without an interval have to be pretty involving to stop the audience becoming literally restless; there could surely have been a case either for missing out a couple of the stories or splitting the show in two.

Considerable interest can be found in the individual stories, and there is no shortage of skill on display. However, there is little coherence between the various elements and no overarching structure to the piece, giving it an unfinished air.

Running time 1 hour 35 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Tuesday 3 – Saturday 21 December 2019
Tues – Sat: 7.30 pm; Matinees Fri 13 at 2.30 pm; Sat 21 at 2 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.

Strange Tales (set detail). Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan


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