Inspired by the centuries-old Chinese folktales by Pu Songling, Strange Tales marks the first time that these stories have been adapted for the stage in the UK. The eight tales that Grid Iron Theatre Company chooses to adapt are full of mystical entities and, at their best, are loaded with moral significance. Made very clear is how the short stories continue to make themselves heard in the present day, courtesy of their seemingly immortal themes. The extent of this import and magic is perhaps not completely done justice in this more Scotland-aimed version of the tales. Nonetheless, the stories are brought to life with evident enthusiasm and a captivating collapse of the boundary between story and narrator.
The visuals of the play are striking. Projections are used to brilliant effect, with the simplest imagery adding an enchanting edge to the story. The best use is during the second short, ‘Talking Pupils’, during which eyes light up the curtains and transform as the story moves along. Other stories feature some beautiful craftsmanship both in the props and in the blocking, as the audience are treated to what can be an intoxicating and stylish fusion of colour. The cast insist throughout the show that these are more than just mere stories, and on a technical level they leave you in no doubt about the truth of their claim.
Strange Tales depends heavily on how well you receive the way the stories have been modified to appeal to non-Chinese (and, in this case, unmistakably Scottish) audiences. The addition of gruff speaking, stereotypical Scottish characters in some of the storylines might make you laugh, but there is a niggling juxtaposition that makes the tale feel off. The Scottish flavour is used overwhelmingly for comedy relief, which detracts from the atmosphere of divination and hidden meaning. Only in the final story, ‘Magical Arts’, is comedy more or less abandoned in favour of a more physical finale, which is when Strange Tales hits its stride. It would have done well to be like that for the whole show. Then again, the whole precedent for the final story is having not taken the previous seven tales seriously enough, something the comedy may foreshadow. You can appreciate why they were included then, even if some in the audience will remain unconvinced.
Anyone hoping for an unbroken sense of wonder will not quite get what they are looking for, but there is creativity abundant in this fascinating production. The three cast members have an inviting chemistry, and fit so well into their roles that you never seriously question their status as otherworldly beings. The show’s tone may feel unsettled, but what it gets right is absorbing, as the narrators slowly lose themselves to Songling’s enchanting stories. Strange Tales is guaranteed to leave you in thought, and even if it won’t quite leave you spellbound, there is still plenty to enjoy.