Review: Roots at Church Hill Theatre

A cat eats his mistress’ bowl of porridge, then the bowl and then the mistress. Then he moves on to the postman, the postman’s sack of Christmas letters and a school full of children. Where will the cat’s gross appetites stop?

That’s just one of the stories in Roots, the latest show from storytellers par excellence 1927, whose cunning mixture of live action and music, spliced with wildly inventive animation, has made this internationally renowned company one of British theatre’s most distinctive exports.

Roots is something of a homecoming. The company were last part of the Edinburgh International Festival in 2015 with a glorious The Magic Flute, a collaboration with Barrie Kosky and the Komische Oper Berlin. But the company’s own roots are in the Fringe, where they were discovered in 2007 with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a delicious theatrical cabaret stuffed full of murderous children and gingerbread men rising up in revolt so that the gutters run with raspberry jam.

This latest show feels very much like a close cousin to that earliest piece. Writer and director Suzanne Andrade has plundered the Aarne Index, which categorises thousands of folk tales from all across the world, and retold a few in her own compelling and idiosyncratic voice. Given a make-over with music and animation, they are served as a neat little package of morsels that sometimes recall silent films, while others look like 1950s cartoons and draw from naïve art and other cultures.

Some you will know, such as the story of Patient Grizelda, who here is a king’s wife tested to the very limits, and which is performed as if in a child’s pop-up theatre. Some feel like throwaway jokes and some, like the story about the man who finds he has poverty as a lodger, are familiar. Two Fish has faint echoes of Hansel and Gretel.

Which, of course, is part of the point of 80 minutes that celebrates the ways stories travel through place and time, and the alchemy with which these tales of human greed, tragedy and absurdity shapeshift to give us exactly what we need at that moment. The fact that each story is narrated by a different non-professional actor doesn’t quite introduce the variety necessary to a show that can feel a mite slight and samey. But as always with 1927, they offer a rich reminder that stories don’t just entertain us, they feed us too.

Roots, Church Hill Theatre, 9-25 Aug (not 14, 21), 3pm, 7.30pm

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