Ghoulish fun: Arthur Pita’s Ten Sorry Tales

Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London
October 28, 2022

“If you enjoy a happy ending, then maybe this isn’t the show for you,” warn the cast warn in their downbeat song that opens Arthur Pita’s Ten Sorry Tales. Of course, all that does is wet the appetite even more.

A combination of dance, theatre, live music and song, and based on Mick Jackson’s book of the same title, the show is a celebration of dark, sometimes macabre humour of the juiciest kind. Almost always irreverent and bizarre, sometimes ghoulish, sometimes colourful, often a little surreal, each story is also very human. Season with a touch of anarchy, and you have a combination that makes the work seriously appealing!

The tale of ‘The Lepidoctor’ sets the tone. Shocked by an exhibition of dead butterflies in a museum, a young girl resurrects them (with the help of that very useful book, ‘How to Bring Insects Back to Life’. What else?) before wreaking vengeance against butterfly catcher Milton Spufford, who sacrifices the insects for art, finally giving him a taste of his own medicine.

‘The Pearce Sisters’ from Ten Sorry Tales by Arthur Pita
Photo Ambra Vernuccio

The cast of six dancers are outstanding, getting through goodness knows how many costume changes and keeping the energy going throughout.

Everyone will have their favourite story but among the best is surely ‘Crossing the River’, which sees a group of pallbearers following a disembodied satnav-type voice before meeting a ferryman who demands extra for the casket.

Most ghoulish, though, is ‘The Pearce Sisters’, which sees the fish gutting siblings turn their attentions to a sailor they rescue. When he doesn’t appreciate their style of care, he too finds himself disembowelled, then smoked for good measure.

Among other perfectly painted characters are a mean-spirited horse who turns out to be a button thief, and the disgustingly over-privileged Giles and Ginny Jarvis, who decide they simply must have a hermit to keep in a newly discovered cave, only to then find he escapes with their new born child.

Pita’s editing does sometimes remove a little too much, however. ‘Neither Hide nor Hair’, the story of Finton Carey who abandoned his mother as he ran away from home and lived wild with a dog suffers in particular. ‘Abducted Aliens’ meanwhile at least offers a whimsical interlude to the macabre.

Linking each story are a series of brief music-hall numbers, one of which includes playing the spoons. Running through the show is the story of ‘The Boy Who Fell Asleep’, a young Rip van Winkle who dozed off during a geography lesson and never woke up. Given that it happened during a lesson on precipitation in nineteenth-century Brussels, perhaps at least dropping off was understandable.

It’s all helped along enormously by multi-instrumentalist Frank Moon, who conjures us his own aural magic on a couple of keyboards and assorted other instruments, played over pre-recorded tracks.

Each story ends with, “I’m sorry.” Why? Don’t be! A bit twisted it may be, and perhaps not quite with the punch it has when read, when the imagination has free rein, but Ten Sorry Tales is playful full of life and great fun.