Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London : 28 October 2022

Arthur Pita has built a solid reputation on bringing surreal tales to life in dance theatre.  Previous forays into his particular genre include Stepmother/Stepfather (with HeadSpace Dance, in 2017), a riff on fairy tale wickedness featuring an unforgettable image of Snow White in her casket; and then there was Mother, his 2019 vehicle for ballet superstar, Natalia Osipova based on a grim fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. 

For Ten Sorry Tales, Pita has turned to the collection of wretched and often gruesome modern-day fables in Mick Jackson’s eponymous book, published in 2005, for his latest adventure in ghoulish physical theatre.   The production premiered in Ipswich, just prior to Christmas in 2019, but you-know-what caused a long delay in this London premiere. 

As usual, Pita’s direction combines spoken text, mime, movement and music in a work that is rich in colour and imagination.   In addition to Yann Seabra’s technicolour designs that provide the feel of something between a Warner Brothers cartoon and Manga, the backbone of the piece comes in Frank Moon’s tireless performance of his own musical score (created with Bev Lee Harling), playing countless instruments and adding narrative whenever required.  It was a remarkable marathon (or, perhaps, more appropriately, decathlon) of musicianship.

Jackson’s tales are on the child’s side of horror: grisly, but funny!   Pita’s interpretation  begins with The Lepidoctor and a young girl’s horror at an exhibition of butterflies, which she brings back to life with the aid of a magic book (How to Bring Insects Back to Life) before taking revenge on the lanky butterfly catcher.  In another tale, a pantomime horse becomes a button thief, pooing them out in its manure, causing hilarity amongst the youngsters in the audience.  Some of the tales were surprisingly brief and that the moral was lost amongst the plethora of images suggested a heavy hand in the editing to create a length of show suitable for the attention span of a younger audience.   One story about a young boy falling asleep in a geography lesson about precipitation in nineteenth-century Brussels (who wouldn’t?!) becomes a leit motif through the tales as he sleeps throughout his life, dying many decades later without ever reawakening.

The two most memorable tales are also the most gruesome.  The Pearce Sisters are shown happily gutting fish – Seabra’s design motif for the removal of their insides was simple but realistically effective; their disembowelling techniques are then employed on a rescued sailor who is also smoked like a kipper for good measure.  And then there was the salutary tale of the bored but privileged wife who advertises for a resident hermit to live in a cave on her property but then neglects to feed or care for him.  In revenge, he steals her baby!  It is to Pita’s credit that these lurid and macabre tales are always presented with a profound sense of humour.

Each tale is interpolated with brief music hall, pierrot-style interludes of song and dance.  The excellent cast of seven performers (including the ever-present Moon) change costumes with remarkable frequency and pinpoint timing, including butterfly wings and a variety of grotesque face masks, beards and sinister head coverings.   By necessity, the dancers themselves were generally anonymous within the cleverness of these disguises.

Pita is making work quite unlike that of any other choreographer enjoying characteristics of surreal comedy, quirky and often surprising movement in a rich visual spectacle.  Ten Sorry Tales – a children’s show for adults – is a further addition to his splendid repertoire.

Cast: Danielle Downey, Karl Fagerlund Brekke, Nathan Goodman, Frank Moon, Simon Palmer, Faith Prendergast, Joshua James Smith  

Photo by Ambra Vernuccio      

© Graham Watts