“If you like a happy ending,” intone the glum cast of Arthur Pita’s Ten Sorry Tales, dutifully arrayed on wooden crates and kitted out in dismaying breeches and plimsolls, “maybe this isn’t the show for you.” Naturally, this warning is pure catnip for the audience. For the show, based on Mick Jackson’s splendidly lugubrious book of the same name, springs from the time-honoured tradition of children’s stories fuelled by the morbid and the maudlin; we are already eagerly anticipating the worst.
It’s quite a task to adapt 10 separate stories into a single stage show, but Pita mostly manages very well, peeling them back to a few bare essentials, stitching them together with music-hall interludes – desperately upbeat melanges of pat-a-cakes, pratfalls, sand-dances and shimmies – clothing them in wilfully am-dram outfits, and looping the story of the boy who fell asleep through the evening like a melancholy refrain, each return marking the snoring passage of one more unwoken decade.
Sometimes Pita’s pruning feels too severe (the boy who runs away into the woods is little more than a passing image); sometimes it preserves the shape of the story but not the psychological root that feeds it. The tale of schoolchildren and abducted aliens is suitably whimsical, but lacks the murkier undercurrents of Jackson’s original text.
Yet when the elements come together, these variously surreal, twisted and of course sorry tales swell with unstated, perhaps even unspeakable meanings. The old man who rows a boat in his cellar, drifting into his own afterlife, six feet under; the girl who digs up old bones, unwittingly mourning her grandfather; the shipwrecked sailor who flails like a fish, foreshadowing his own gruesome fate at the hands of the fisherwomen who rescue him.
Mixing mime, acting, song and dance, the piece makes considerable demands on its performers, who will doubtless grow into their roles as the run progresses. One figure who arrives fully formed is Frank Moon, a one-man band in the downstage corner who steers us through the evening with music ranging from restless klezmer to slow-footed dirge, from jangling keyboards to a woozily bowed saw, as querulous as the voice of a sensitive child.