IF PANTOMIME is not your cup of Chinese tea – or if you just feel like a change of festive pace – then you may find some real balm for the soul in the Traverse’s latest show for the Christmas season. Co-produced with Edinburgh’s Grid Iron company, and inspired by the stories of 17th century Chinese writer Pu Songling, Strange Tales offers a spectacular theatrical retelling of just eight of his many hundreds of tales; stories as familiar in Chinese culture as classic fairytales are in the west, celebrated in the equivalent of Disney films, and still told by parents and grandparents to each new generation of children.
Strange Tales, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh **** | Cinderfella, Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****
Over 90 minutes, presented as an evening of storytelling, the three performers – Chinese-born Luna Dai, Malaysian-Chinese performer Robin Khor Long Kuan, and Scottish actor Pauline Lockhart, who also co-writes and co-directs the show with Grid Iron’s Ben Harrison – offer us supernatural tales of ghostly possession and other strange encounters, sometimes disturbing, sometimes full of earthy comedy, alongside a strand of personal commentary that offers us a glimpse of the importance of these stories in Chinese family life, as well as a warning about the need to approach such powerful magical tales in the right spirit.
So there’s a scholarly student who falls in love with a beautiful ghost, a hideous demon disguised as a beautiful woman, a leering man tormented by tiny creatures who live in his eyes; there’s even a man from Paisley on a vain quest for enlightenment in a Chinese monastery. All of this is wrapped in layers of powerful music and sound by Ruth Chan and Richard Bell, and in eloquent large-scale visual imagery orchestrated not only by designer Karen Tennant – who creates an atmospheric gauze-veiled set full of torn curtains between this life and the underworld – but also by video designers Susanna Murphy and Christine Spiteri, lighting designer James Johnson, and special effects designer Fergus Dunnet. And the final effect is of a beautiful and passionate show that – even if its pace sometimes lags a little – offers us a vital glimpse of a different way of thinking about the relationship between the living and the dead; along with a very personal invitation to consider how we approach such stories, and how, for good or ill, they touch our lives.
There’s not much heart-searching in Johnny McKnight’s latest Tron panto, by contrast; but rather a blast of merry feminist brilliance, as the unstoppable McKnight offers us an all-female version of Cinderella in which the the Prince is a wealthy internet Princess – throwing a ball to try to find herself a husband – while Sally Reid’s superb Cinders is a grieving orphan struggling to keep her family vintage clothes shop open, and her two nasty macho step-brothers are played to hilarious effect by Daisy Ann Fletcher and the brilliant Hannah Jarrett-Scott.
It’s almost impossible to describe the non-stop streams of witty cultural references, social media gags and sheer punning hilarity unleashed on this situation by McKnight, at the height of his powers; the songs are as witty as the text, with composer and musical director Ross Brown collaborating on seriously funny and timely songs with titles like Macho Men and Disco Boys. In the end, McKnight’s magical “ring-a-ding-ting-ting-thing” of true love appears, as ever, in an unexpected place; and with Kenny Miller directing and designing in a riot of electrifying pink and yellow, this merriest of subversive pantos romps to a rousingly feminist conclusion, with Cinderella taking her future into her own hands, in best 21st century style.
Strange Tales until 21 December; Cinderfella until 5 January