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.