a flight of Halloween fancy that never quite takes off

Ten Sorry Tales, Sadler's Wells - Ambra Vernuccio

Ten Sorry Tales, Sadler’s Wells – Ambra Vernuccio

Something wicked is happening around here – or at least something joyfully macabre. Arthur Pita’s dance-drama adaptation of Mick Jackson’s book of the same name, which premiered in Ipswich in 2019 and will tour the UK next year, provides suitably dark (or budding) fables Grimm) at Sadler’s Wells for Halloween. It is also timed for mid-run viewing; that is, if young viewers can handle it.

Those who have weaned themselves off Roald Dahl are unlikely to be phased by the lawless violence or the filthy elements – whether it’s a hermit emerging from his cave with grotesquely overgrown fingernails, or a girl rummaging in horse poo to find his stolen button. However, the 8+ age recommendation is more questionable when it comes to gruesome gutting, or perhaps more “normal” horror, like a boy falling asleep in class and sleeping for decades. Nightmarish fuel.

But I think Pita’s instinct is absolutely right: it’s dance approachably presented as eerie, witty storytelling. The hour and fifteen minute show is divided into brief chapters, with titles projected onto the back wall, although this brevity leaves little time for character or movement development. The threads become more impressionistic – some are wonderful, bizarre snapshots that linger, others simply lack substance.

Net wins: Simon Palmer - Ambra Vernuccio

Net wins: Simon Palmer – Ambra Vernuccio

Outstanding performer Nathan Goodman plays this prancing, smirking horse that nicks a button on a little girl’s new coat – a dance cleverly used to interpret her inner life. He is also excellent as a boy who runs away from home and becomes a wild dweller in the forest. Faith Prendergast brings beautiful lyricism to a story of grave robbing that is actually about dealing with grief, but most poignant is Karl Fagerlund Brekke as an old man building a boat in his cellar. Oddly lit by Mark Doubleday, this evocative segment is understated and painfully elegiac.

Conversely, the whimsical clownish interludes, which aim but do not have the stylistic specificity of vaudeville, creak quickly. Pita also uses dialogue inconsistently; sometimes it feels like an escape. The best application is the dancers’ lip-synch with children’s voices recorded during a supposed alien abduction: wonderfully spooky. Just like Yann Seabra’s confusing masks, which made me think of a gang committing a bank robbery.

But the message of these cautionary tales is too vague – other than a tedious critique of the wealthy and a general nod to respect for nature, as in the story of an artist trapping butterflies. There’s a tantalizing glint of movement floating around in this one, but it never quite takes off. In fact, the show-stealer is the amazing one-man-band Frank Moon, who creates entire worlds. The production as a whole lacks that imaginative marvel, but it’s an admirable effort to woo the next generation of dance fans.

Until October 29. Tickets: 020 7863 8000; sadlerswells.com

Also at the Norwich Playhouse from November 3-5. Tickets: 01603 630 000; norwichtheatre.org

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