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Ex Libris Macabre: A Night of Dark Fairytales
Theatre Delicatessen, Marylebone Gardens
6th December 2012

★★★★☆

Ex Libris Macabre

Photography supplied by Little Jade Productions

Christmas is only second to Halloween for the chance to sit by a fire and tell some tales. Granted, the ones during the festive season are usually considerably more jolly (the birth of a little baby or a fat man giving you stuff) but there's an undeniable air of something, whether it be sentimentality, magic or turkey-related hallucinations, that make it almost unavoidable. Little Jade Productions have turned that on its head with a night of dark fairytales, songs and recitals intended to send a chill to your bones stronger than the freezing December weather.

Former BBC studios, with those odd, secondary school ceiling tiles made of polystyrene, don't seem like the ideal place, especially following a fashion show downstairs. But as soon as you're led into a green room, decked out with a Christmas tree, tinsel and teas and coffees, the initial impression melts away. When met by Sonia Allan, who blasts out a haunting rendition of You Will Be My Ain True Love, by Sting and Alison Krauss, it evaporates completely.

The night took another turn as we were led into the main space, a barren, cold, dark room that must have previously been a studio but resembled a warehouse. While I'd have preferred to have the sinister tales offset by the previous homely room - for a touch of magical realism - others in my company relished the darkness and the broken atmosphere.

The Japanese folk tale Noppera-Bo: Mujina started us off. The creature, a changeling, resembles a human with a blank face and here a young man meets two - one a young woman and another a soba vendor. Akie Kotabie adapted the piece, and his fluid, engaging storytelling paid off brilliantly. An elegant, assured start to the evening.

Less successful was Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman. Performed word for word, his poem about an innkeeper's daughter who kills herself to warn a highwayman of an ambush, it lacked a simplicity and directness that made the original so heartbreaking. The group tried to overcomplicate the delivery via some interpretive dance/shadow work by Thomas Judd when all it needed was the stripped down presentation and admittedly emotive narration. Noyes' piece in isolation was as beautiful as ever, despite the bells and whistles.

But original vampire tale, Teeth, written and performed by Liz McMullen was an effectively creepy piece. And Bowie's Please Mr Gravedigger was moved away from the bonkers, macabre Baroque pop trappings of the original into something else entirely. Lit only by a hand lamp, Judd sliced aways the layers of Bowie' camp theatricality for a rawer, unsettling retelling. It was the first of a number of excellent reinterpretations of songs, which included Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Red Right Hand, The Decemberists' dirge The Rake's Song and the piece that made up the wonderful finale, the exquisitely eerie My Boy Builds Coffins by Florence and the Machine.

Roping up a game member of the audience, Alexander and McMullen took on Tansy Rayner Roberts' Lucky Tart, a recipe for, unsurprisingly, a tart which provides good luck. The poem itself is incredibly reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Instructions, from 2000, in both sentence structure and content. The main problem was that while Gaiman's is bewitching and surprisingly moving, Roberts' is whimsical and twee. While it doesn't exactly fit in to the theme of the night - and, indeed, Gaiman's would be better - it's given a boost by the performing pair.

Angela Carter's Tiger's Bride was again very well put together, engaging and undoubtedly entertaining, but Carter's signature move of reappropriating these tales as feminist wasn't clear. The bride in question is lost to the Beast in a game of poker, reduced by both her father and the Beast to merely goods. It's only when she submits to her bestial side that she takes ownership of herself again. The staging here, however, made this act one of subjugation and appeasement rather than liberation.

On the other hand, Poe's The Raven was a superbly-judged representation of a fractured mind. Each cast member took on lines of the play, personifying aspects of the psyche without missing a beat of Poe's hypnotically musical rhyme and rhythm structure. Although the story has previously been told so effectively by single voices such as Christopher Walken, Stan Lee and Christopher Lee (and in a humorous fashion by The Simpsons and, to a degree, William Shatner), this was a refreshing and welcome take.

On the whole, Ex Libris Macabre is something different, and perfectly suited to the season. Little Jade have taken a few gambles, which happily paid off more often than not. For a little bit of dark Christmas magic with boundless imagination and ambition, you really can't go wrong.

Ex Libris Macabre: A Night of Dark Fairytales ran from 3rd to 22nd December at Theatre Delicatessen.

Nearest tube station: Baker Street (Bakerloo, Hammersmith & City, Metropolian, Circle)



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