Think you know Aesop’s fables? Think again. Sally Cookson’s production of the famous tales presents a happy-camper tortoise opposite a onesie-sporting hare, a grumpy teenage boy who cries wolf and a rock ‘n’ roll crooner as the sun.
Bristol Old Vic’s outdoor summer show is a consummate piece of storytelling theatre which brings Aesop’s ancient fables – as told through the pen of Michael Morpurgo – to vivid life.
A five-strong cast tells stories familiar and obscure, from The Hare and the Tortoise to Belling the Cat, with the title fable split into three episodes and scattered through the evening. The cast wanders onto Phil Eddolls’s verdant set (constructed from scaffolding immediately in front of the Old Vic itself) like travelling players, each of them loaded with a sack of props.
Chris Bianchi, Lucy Tuck and Tom Wainwright take the lion’s (wolf’s?) share of the acting while Will and Benji Bower provide the live music – an aspect which has become something of a trademark of Cookson’s productions.
Benji Bower’s lively songs are the perfect match for Cookson’s style which picks out humour in details other directors might overlook. Who else could create a sparklingly funny scene from a character eating a sandwich? While the tortoise (an adorable Lucy Tuck) ponderously pulls lettuce from between slices of bread, the audience can’t take their eyes away.
The goose that lays the golden eggs, in another of the evening’s episodes, is a puppet created from wooden spoons, washing up gloves and a feather duster, and imaginatively operated by Tom Wainwright. It’s Wainwright, in fact, who takes the title role and entertains the crowd by actually inviting them – surely a rare occurrence – to throw things at him.
Chris Bianchi, meanwhile, plays the blues crooning sun in The Sun and the Wind, but it’s as the seemingly inexhaustible hare that he brings the house down – or would do if we were in one. Dressed in a grey onesie with bunny ears he darts around the set yelling "chop, chop", "wang, wang" and "pow, pow" at everything. There were, I suspect, more than a few knowing laughs from parents of toddlers in the audience.
If there are scenes which lose momentum, the production moves on to the next tale before there’s a chance to fidget. This is a tightly wrought piece of storytelling that revels in the essentials of the art – likeable characters, a good plot and a strong punchline – things Aesop himself would have recognised.