Strange Tales

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper

Four stars

Once upon a nightmare, Chinese writer Pu Songling penned more than 500 supernatural stories that were gathered together and published in a volume eventually translated as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. A few hundred years on, Pu’s yarns have been made flesh in Grid Iron Theatre Company’s first ever British stage version of eight of the stories as the brain-child of Pauline Lockhart.

Lockhart appears alongside fellow actors Luna Dai and Robin Khor Yong Kuan in her own adaptation of Ewan Macdonald’s new translations, co-penned and co-directed with Grid Iron’s Ben Harrison in co-production with the Traverse. It starts simply enough, as the story-telling trio appear one by one through the artfully torn gauze curtains of Karen Tennent’s breathtakingly expansive set, addressing the audience directly as they set out the ground rules. The stories they are about to resurrect, they say, are powerful beasts, and must be handled with care.

So it goes with what follows in an other-worldly potpourri of vignettes involving amorous demons, ghosts and fox spirits, accompanied by the fantastical largesse of Fergus Dunnet’s puppet creations. A randy old gentleman gets an eyeful in unexpected ways, a chancer from Paisley goes in search of wisdom, and a well-heeled escapee from a Noel Coward play holds court in her boudoir. For those old enough to recall 1970s teatime children’s TV show, Michael Bentine’s Potty Time – and indeed for those who aren’t – the elaborate piece of one-line absurdism that is The Little Mandarin is a laugh out loud hoot.

All this is pulsed by Ruth Chan’s multi-faceted score and Richard Bell’s evocative sound design, with Tennent’s wide-open staging allowing free rein for the dizzying video design from Susanna Murphy and Cristina Spiteri, aka Bright Side Studios. Each story comes with a moral sting that acts as lessons for us all, with a final surprise showing where the power really is in a dazzling thumb-through a story-book to savour.