Strange Tales @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Mystical and dark as well as strange – if you're looking to escape some of the sugariness of Christmas, this is the show for you

Review by Rachael O'Connor | 16 Dec 2019
  • Strange Tales @ The Traverse, Edinburgh

What comes across in Strange Tales, produced by the Traverse and Grid Iron, is the passion and effort that has gone into making it. Huge credit is due to Karen Tennent, Christina Spiteri, James Johnson and Fergus Dunnet for lighting, set and live effects, and to Richard Bell for sound.

Written around 1740 by Pu Songling, Strange Tales are reminiscent of Aesop’s fables: morality stories used to educate, or scare, children into good behaviour. Tonight's eight tales, chosen from a selection of 500, exhort us not to mistreat women, not to drain our energy by having too much sex, to make sacrifices for true love and to be aware of the downfalls of spiritual pretension.

Introduced and brought to life by storytellers Luna Dai, Pauline Lockhart and Robin Khor Yong Kuan, each tale follows a similar pattern. A central character is deluded by spirits or their own foibles, and then is shown the error of their ways by coming close to death or, in the case of the truly disturbing Talking Pupils, by losing their eyesight. The Little Mandarin and The Big Sneeze are short interludes providing light relief from the bloodthirsty female ghosts and the naughty fox spirits. Children will love the blobs of green snot turning into malicious Gremlin-type creatures, with excellent puppetry skills on show here.

The pace of the show slows at times, but picks up during the final two tales. The Daoist Priest Of Mount Lao presents us with a huge, luminous full moon, a sorceress who floats down from the moon to the stage as well as Shug, from Paisley, who has come to China to learn how to walk through walls so he can show off to his pals back home. Magical Arts, the final piece, depicts increasingly fierce demons for our hero to overcome, building to a visual feast of a finale. 

Sure, it's the magical strangeness of the stories which draws you in. But the sheer inventiveness of the visual effects and sound design, the excellently use of puppets and the perfectly composed set which give these ethereal tales their weight. 

Strange Tales, Traverse Theatre, until 21 December