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Roots review at Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘1927’s tapestry of folk tales’

David Insua-Cao, Francesca Simmons and Suzanne Andrade in Roots at Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Gaelle Beri David Insua-Cao, Francesca Simmons and Suzanne Andrade in Roots at Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Gaelle Beri

1927’s new show takes the form of a tapestry of folk tales, or “folk jokes” as the company terms them. The style of the show resembles that of 1927’s earlier work, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, a distinctive mix of live action and Paul Barritt’s quirky and expressionistic animation.

The four performers interact with the projections. Most of the time they stand in front of them, but occasionally a white-painted face will poke through a window in the rear-wall screen and appear atop of an animated body, resembling something from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon.

Some of the 13 stories, plucked from a folktale archive and adapted for the stage by Suzanne Andrade, are snippets, while others are more complex, some familiar, others less so. In the opening tale, a deadpan cat slowly and relentlessly consumes the world. In another, a woman is granted three wishes. An ogre challenges a town to a laughing contest. The unluckiest man in the world lives up to his name.

The shadow of poverty and people’s need to feed themselves looms large in the stories, as does the hand of fate in people’s lives. In one of the longer tales, a king sets out to find a loyal wife, a woman who will do as he says and will possess no will of her own. He puts his chosen bride to a series of tests. She passes them, but the ‘happy’ ending looks pretty dubious to modern eyes. The show looks wryly at what ancient tales tell us about social hierarchies and gender roles. Angela Carter is cited as a reference and that’s borne out in the mixture of the playful and the grotesque.

The anthology format of Andrade and Esme Appleton’s production allows Barritt to let loose creatively, exploring different animation styles, from Lotte Reiniger-inspired silhouettes to a collage approach reminiscent of Terry Gilliam. For many of the tales, the company’s friends and family members have supplied the narration and their voices add further textural layers to the piece.

Lillian Henry’s score is augmented with a collection of idiosyncratic instruments – a collection of saws, bones and whistling things – played by David Insua-Cao and Francesca Simmons.

There’s no framing device or clear narrative through-line, and because the most amusing and interesting tales come early on, the production soon runs out of steam. But while it feels a bit thin, Roots does show how these tales bleed across linguistic and geographic borders – how they underscore our cultural commonality.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets review at Lyric Hammersmith – ‘cleverly designed, but tone-deaf’

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1927’s animated tapestry of folk tales contains moments of magic, but eventually runs out of steam