With only four simply dressed actresses and a range of household objects, Red Table Theatre act out four of Kipling’s tales from The Just So Stories, sticking very closely to his own words. These four flip slickly from character to character in an instant, adopting accents and mannerisms that give the anthropomorphised animals far more depth than they had in the original. So many little quirks of personality are crammed into characters that previously had only walk-on parts. This characterisation even includes a few modern touches, such as a crocodile with a gangsta style accent. They manage both to keep the dry humour of the original tales and to give a slightly knowing wink to the adults in the audience about the occasionally overly moralising nature of the text.The cast harmonise perfectly, both in song and in the way they move around the stage, transforming a slinky into an elephant’s trunk or a pair of red gloves into a little crab. Their unaccompanied, haunting singing of Kipling’s poems is appropriate for some of his more absurd images and marks the transition from one tale to another as the cast move above the stage reassembling it for the next tale, making the setting up of each scene just as much a part of the performance.
Taking turns at narrating throughout each story, passing the narration from one to another more smoothly than relay runners handing on the baton, they use the tales to create something which stands on its own as a work. Kipling’s text has a slightly fantastical phrasing which is brilliantly accompanied by the cast’s sing-song narrating voices; leaving aside the physical presence of the actors, the narration provides enough entertainment by itself. It would make a great audio book. Visually, there is always something to look at, with as seemingly random objects becoming props, somewhat reminiscent of children’s ability to make any object, not matter how dull, into a toy. The whole effect is a bit like a game of charades in an Edwardian house on a rainy day. In the same way that they make a dull piece of tarpaulin into the waves of an ocean, they have changed slightly old-fashioned tales into something pulsing with life.
Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just-So Stories’ are a collection of short, simple tales for children which explore questions such as ‘how did the camel get his hump?’. They’re staged here in charmingly low-key fashion by Red Table Theatre.
The ‘Green’ at the Pleasance Courtyard is a small venue, with beanbags and stools strewn about for the kids to sit on. The whole affair is very relaxed, like a bedtime story or campfire singalong – a comparison reinforced when the cast bursts out into song at the end of each tale.
Singing aside, sound isn’t used too extensively in ‘The Just-So Stories.’ All of the sound effects are produced by cast members, which adds to the make-believe, DIY nature of the performance. Similarly, the props used leave much to the imagination. An enormous crab is created out of four red umbrellas held by cast members; a camel is depicted by a moody-looking cast member with a blanket stuffed up the back of their shirt.
In other words, the actors largely play pretend, and let the imagination of the audience do the rest. Exaggerated body language and a wide assortment of comedy accents (from Australian to Geordie to the Queen’s English) make the cast an wonderful sight to watch. It’s clear they’re loving the experience every bit as much as the children, who are held in rapt attention. Enthusiasm is key to any show, but when young children are the target audience, it’s essential – and it’s something that Red Table Theatre has really managed to pin down.
The stories themselves are largely exercises in mythology for kids, drawing out the wonder and excitement inherent in the natural world. Everything is explained in a very down-to-earth, matter-of-fact way, and peppered with a few references to Edinburgh to keep the locals happy. The enchanting simplicity of the stories is only enhanced by moments in which the cast interact with their audience by asking rhetorical questions (‘you haven’t forgotten the braces, have you?’) and spraying them with water from a whale’s spout – a surprising moment which the kids absolutely loved.
There’s little more to say about ‘The Just-So Stories’ other than if you’re at the Fringe with kids, or if you’re still a child at heart, they’re well worth a watch. The acting is fantastic, the adaptation is imaginative, and above all, the children adore it.
Watching a group of children snuggle up on beanbags and entertain themselves with animal hand puppets, I wish I could be five years old again. As the show begins, the four performers from the Red Table Theatre Production Company spring out of boxes to act out the story of ‘The crab who played with the sea’, capturing the kids’ attention with their charismatic narration. As well as explaining how the world came to be as it is now, “and it was so, just so. A long time ago”, the four tales from Rudyard Kipling’s famous ‘Just So Stories’ each impart an important lesson, subtly teaching the kids right from wrong.
Impressing a group of small, impatient children is a great achievement, and Red Table Production keep their audience entertained with their imaginative use of household objects as props and their captivating characterisation of a diverse range of characters. To the children’s delight, the performers switch slickly between accents, choosing impressively appropriate voices for each animal: we encounter a lazy camel who does nothing but “humph” and a mellow, Rastafarian crocodile.
A particular favourite, provoking many giggles, is the final story of ‘How the elephant got his trunk’. The instantly lovable elephant child gets in trouble for his “insatiable curiosity”, and only just escapes being eaten by the crocodile when he asks it what it eats for supper. The use of metal slinkies as elephant trunks is ingenious, and it is lovely to see the children play at being elephants themselves at the end of the show.
Although the youngsters seem to enjoy the moralising songs that come at the end of each tale, the standard of the singing is disappointing and the poor harmonies are even uncomfortable to listen to at times. However, the songs neatly reinforce each story’s message and smoothly move the show on, as the quartet set the scene for the next tale while they sing. In their narrations, the performers’ voices are clear throughout; they capture the magic of Kipling’s stories, effortlessly bringing each of the characters to life.
Instead of reading ‘The Just So Stories’ to your children, why not pop on over to the Children’s Courtyard at the Pleasance? The kids emerge from the igloo-like tent calmed and educated, and you get an hour’s rest from the hustle and bustle of The Fringe. Children’s theatre at its best, ‘Just So Stories’ is a must-see for the whole family.