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Dark Tales

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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There's nothing unduly dark about these tales, really, and resident company Giant Olive offers little to disturb a sensitive nature beyond the need for a spot of hush somewhere along the way.

Director Rafe Beckley has selected half a dozen stories by Hans Andersen and explored their dramatic potential with his actors. It all smacks a bit of the workshop, to be honest, but there's nothing wrong with that when the outcome is so inventive. A fish swallows a tin soldier? Snap open a purse and here's its mouth. A field of flowers? Massed gloves and we're there. Imaginative stagecraft is the brightest asset of these Dark Tales .

The most entertaining episode is Little Claus and Big Claus, in which Beckley's deft direction allows comedy to energise a farce-tinged storyline. Less effective are the ones that are propelled by direct-to-audience narration, not least because so few of the actors inject any variation of pace, energy, volume or tonal colour into their relentless storytelling. There are times during The Elf and the Rose when you know you ought to concentrate but you catch your mind wandering during a crucial bit. Like weather forecasts on the radio.

The youthful nine-strong ensemble is desperate to please although, ironically, they are at their most persuasive when they don't try too hard. Their in-yer-face hectoring, all flashing eyes and vocal extremes, demands a rictus response if you're caught in the headlights (hint: if you're coming straight from a hard day at the office, avoid the front row); on the other hand their choral interludes are a delight, dances - improbable, one would have thought, in this environment - are immensely spirited, and Stuart Mansell's versatile guitar work grabs the attention even when he is not holding the floor as an actor.

One performer alone uses the potential of studio theatre to draw us into her character. With her audience in touching distance, Minna Pang is mesmerising as the still, subtle centre of the evening, her face a study in heartbreak in The Story of a Mother, her understated presence irresistible even when other, more prominent cast members are declaiming to excess.

The show's climactic set piece is a brilliant visualisation of The Red Shoes in which Annie Clarke suffers nobly as the dancing Karen and Abi Unwin-Smith shines as her shoes. How fortunate for these two that they're working over a pub, because by show's end they've more than earned a reviving trip downstairs.


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