Strange Tales

Based on the stories by Pu Songling

Adapter: Ewan Macdonald

Written & Directed by Pauline Lockhart and Ben Harrison

Our nightmares may be home to Kelpies, Redcaps and Banshees but for a different culture, who grew with the stories of Chinese writer Pu Songling, who five centuries ago wrote over five-hundred tales of demons, beasts and spirits, this is the fuel of their midnight imaginations. Join us in expanding your horizons of folklore but be careful not to stray far from the path of twilight, or these Strange Tales may claim you before the morning light.

Tying a creative meta to the narrative, as these tales are told, we come to realise that the deeper we delve into the heart of fantasy, the less likely we are to escape, enveloped, seduced by these spun tales of fox spirits, ghoulish lovers and small creatures living in our gaze. Just eight of Pu Songling’s stories are premiered for the first time on a British stage here in Edinburgh, but will any of the audience be able to sleep this evening?

Spearheading this revival, Grid Iron Theatre Company are offering more than a mere re-telling, instead, a conjuring of Songling’s creations. The stage of the Traverse is raised off the ground to intimately thrust directly into the audience. Karen Tennant’s set design offers quite enough detail to transport us to the humble settings of a storytellers canvas. Torn cloth, laden with symbols, drape into the crowds below, where one can’t help but feel a chill in tonight’s performance, despite the warmth of our hosts.

And luckily, we have three spinners of tales to safely guide us, well, we hope. Co-writing the premise, from Ewan MacDonald’s translation, Pauline Lockhart is the Scottish core of Strange Tales, bringing a rich humour, which is the most fluid of the three, though Robin Khor Yong Kuan brings a roguish charm to the antics. Performances vary, With Lockhart’s young lad from Paisley seeking the talents of ancient masters from the East a standout role, as is Luna Dai’s take on the antagonistic fortune teller. It is though, a combination of sleight of hand, magic and some finger puppets which captivates the audiences. As Khor Yong Kuan’s ‘Big Sneeze’ takes us intently out of reality and into the moment.

With a cacophony of stories, ghouls, effects and characters – it was bound to cause a tripping hazard. There’s an ounce too much, which unbalances the performance and stifles what should be a spectacular finale. In a twist to the parable, Lockhart confronts the three spirts of Paper, Clay and Light, previously shunning the warnings of delving too deep into these tales. The spirit of paper, another of Fergus Dunnet’s live effects is a strong start, but it is video design from Bright Side Studios which spellbindingly ties together the arts of modern technology and ancient storytelling.

That said, even with the power of the Light spirit, and impressive fight choreography from Philip Ho, it feels excessive in the closing act, as Pauline tosses and uses physical prowess, rather than wit or word, to evade the spirits. It seems to be acting against the general lessons, where many of the evil spirits are outwitted, only resorting to physical violence when cornered. Instead, here it feels shoehorned in, that with all the grandeur of puppets, visuals and tone, there was no way to write their way out of the scenario causing abrupt conclusions.

At its height, Strange Tales is sumptuous stage sorcery which places storytelling above all else and echoes a profound admiration for culture, narrative and theatre. This is a quintessentially traditional show for the festive period, it just so happens to be a tradition many here are unfamiliar with. Fusing a Chinese and Malaysian Chinese heritage with a Caledonian tongue, Strange Tales is a welcome addition to the world of folklore, a triumph of bracing theatre.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Photo Credit – Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Mother Goose – The Byre Theatre

Directed and Written by Gordon Barr

Musical Direction by Stephen Roberts

Dust off the tinsel, crack open the advocaat and expand those pipes – it’s Pantomime season. With a vast tradition within the community, The Byre Theatre may have changed a few hands, had a few facelifts and seen more people through its doors than Mother Goose’s boudoir, but its annual Christmas celebration is a highlight for the town, for Fife and Scotland. Writer & director Gordon Barr takes his pen to the world of fairy tales once anew to lift the spirits of those who could do with one thing: a bloomin’ marvellous time out.

She’s kind, big-hearted and a wee national treasure in her own right, Mother Goose has been looking after the kids, creatures and whatever’s of Phantasia for, well, more years than she would dare admit. With her bright and happy helpers, Peter Pan and Red Riding Hood, nothing could ruin this near-perfect life with her most naive child, Bruce the Goose. That is until a splinter of frost emerges from Mother Goose’s past. A speckle of snow, from a royal adversary, who excels in drawing out the worst in us.

As time goes on, a difficulty arises in pantomime. There are only so many jokes we can hear, and a limit to the cringes we can take. Barr’s script, rifles itself with these sorts of gags, but has one key strength; delivery. Borrowing from some of Disney’s newer franchises, particularly the Descendant’s line, Mother Goose packs itself with references from our cherished childhood stories and their Hollywood counterparts. A massive cast dominates the A B Paterson auditorium, in a set leaping right from the covers of a story-book, garishly bright, panto-perfect. It’s all just too wonderfully sweet to bear, especially for our antagonist – The Snow Queen, a cold-hearted witch, with a devious tool – an indistinguishable accent.

Soaking-up every boo, thriving on hisses, Stephen Arden is a natural-born baddie. Evidence of Arden’s choreography talent becomes clear during a roguish rendition of Chicago’s Cellblock Tango, with icy representations of Panto’s foulest foes arising once more to perform a standout number which forces us to root for the baddies. Then again, Arden makes a compelling case for evil to triumph, as one of the countries’ nastiest Panto villains. Ruthless and cruel, but with solid vocals, Arden isn’t just a foppish performer hamming his role, instead, The Snow Queen has stage presence, spitting out venom which only Mother Goose can match.

Any familiar with the Byre’s festive season will no doubt be a fan of Alan Steele, the resident panto dame. As Mother Goose, Steele channels a sense of community with choice words for the productions second half, elevating this panto into a touching rendition on self-worth and image. As sentimental as Steele’s interpretation of Barr’s script maybe, his firm footing in the art of performance is second to none. With full control of the crowd, reading where the inebriates are, where the kids causing a riot maybe, and certainly where to find the unsuspecting love interests, Steele’s Mother Goose is vivacious, bodacious and decked out in all the halls.

Stitching up these queens of the stage, Siobhan’s wardrobe supervision, with Carys Hobbs’ design, makes for seamless transitions, moving from the bedazzled gown to comforting apron and showstopping peacock flairs. Mother Goose has a festive feel running throughout, it’s a cosy atmosphere, larger than life performances and revoltingly bright, colourful and cheerful children.

It’s a family affair, with the occasional nod to the parents in the audience, but as always, we seek our biggest laughs in the ad-libs and flubs. You can measure a lot from a team’s ability to run with the absent lighting cues or line trips, and the Mother Goose team rise to the challenge, rolling it into the script itself with ease. Coaxing the crowd into showing a bit more mirth, Robert Elkin’s Bruce the Goose is a spirited role, easing a rather timid Saturday crowd into relaxing, enjoying and engaging. Raising smiles with the kids, and expectations with the adults, Stephanie McGregor’s splendid vocals as Little Red are the stand-out notes, matched only by her comedic delivery.

Regional theatre at its most colourful, Mother Goose keeps itself rooted in Panto tradition, splashing a fair whack of cultural flair into its aesthetics. Supported by a solid cast, and a town who will fall behind the theatre’s history, The Byre Theatre houses a 24-carat egg of fizzing festive joy.

Mother Goose runs at The Byre Theatre until January 4th. Tickets available from:

Photo Credit: Viktoria Begg

Goldilocks & The Three Bears – King’s Theatre

Written by Allan Stewart & Alan McHugh

Directed by Ed Curtis

Musical Direction by Andy Pickering

How on earth have we arrived at Panto season again? Nary a month ago it felt as though Beauty & The Beast was playing at The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, and now with tremendously happy crowds, our trio returns to the stage once more. Yes, folks, not only are Allan Stewart and Grant Stott back on the stage, accompanied once more by Gillian Parkhouse, but Andy Gray returns to immense cheers of appreciation and adoration. To put it simply, it just wasn’t the same without him.

Donning his top hat, Gray commands his usual stomping ground as Andy McReekie, loving(ish) husband to the gorgeous Dame May McReekie – who, incidentally, has a new book for purchase in the lobby, she’s just too humble to mention this. Together, this fine pair run McReekie’s Circus, who do away with performing animals and preferably offer daring stunts from The Berserk Riders, or vaudeville classic The Great Juggling Alfio.

Promising the greatest show on earth, Goldilocks and the Three Bears take a playfully loose interpretation of the charming tale of cold porridge, soft beds and broken chairs. Then again, when have we known a script from Allan Stewart or Alan McHugh to stick to the source material? People want eccentricity, ludicrous stunts, and a story where the three bears may not be the stars, but there is a substantial lack of story behind the showmanship. As far as pantomime goes, Goldilocks is a by the storybook take on the genre, its visuals may be first-class, but its story is in safe hands – too safe. Jokes don’t punch as hard as they usually would, with only off the cuff banters and risqué digs at Prince Andrew causing more than a chortle.

Well, what can we say except this; if there’s any budget left for next year, someone’s fiddling the tax books. The King’s Panto has always been a piece of spectacle, from the cheesy and tacky glitz and glam of festive cheer to a grandeur worthy of Princes and Princesses. So, this year, Ian Westbrook has royally outdone himself with 3D Creations lending a hand offering; big tops, tight ropes, flaming torches and animatronic creatures of King Kong scale. And still, with a few choice surprises we dare not ruin by fear of Baron Von Vinklebottom’s whip.

On the subject of Vinklebottom, it’s awfully kind that Stewart and Gray keep employing this young Stott fellow during the festive months. A star of radio and television (we’re told) there’s certainly some acting chops beneath that Cheshire grin. Every year Stott’s adoration from the crowd for playing the vilest baddies grows deeper. It’s neigh-on impossible not to surrender over to the sadistic glee Stott manifests, the louder we boo, the more wicked the performance. Comedically, it’s a pitched performance, but what would one expect? Jabbing at the audience, rolling with the punches, Stott is showman through and through. Tragically, McHugh’s script underutilises a primary asset in Stott, who isn’t on stage nearly as much as we would hope for.

In fact, with plenty on show this evening (and not just from Dame May Reekie) it would be ill in failing to mention Andy Pickering’s musical direction, or indeed Karen Martin’s dazzling choreography. You have two chances to take a breath – once before the show starts, and another at the interval. Otherwise, blink or breath and you’ll have missed something. With superb vocals, from Cinderella to Beauty to Goldilocks, like Stott, Gillian Parkhouse is woefully underused. Performing numbers well, Parkhouse’s choreography is tight, but lyrically the numbers aren’t memorable or have staying power beyond the chorus.

Standing onstage with three panto legends is a difficult task at the best of times, for first-timer to the King’s Panto, but by no means new to the gig, Jordan Young can cut it with the best of them. Within moments, Young’s panto prowess is clear. As the trio induct Young into the beating heart of Edinburgh’s festive season, the usual Panto tropes are played on the unsuspecting Young – who, in turn, rises to adlibs, tongue twisters and fourth wall jabs. What Aberdeen may have lost in his move to Edinburgh’s panto, is this cities gain.

Excelling in all forms, going for bigger, bolder and more extreme settings and talents every year, King’s Panto manages to whet the appetite for the following years show the moment the curtain falls. How, year after year this team delivers a production which makes this city proud is unfathomable, as is the energy the team bring. This may be the early nights of a long run, but there is little doubt each performance from Stewart, Gray and Stott is conducted as if it were their first, their last and their best.

Goldilocks & The Three Bears runs at The King’s Theatre until January 19th. Tickets are available from Capital Theatres:

Photo Credit: Douglas Robertson