Ballo Arthur Pita have returned to Sadler’s Wells with a fresh and twisted new show for all the family to enjoy — and wince at. Ten Sorry Tales is a gleefully gruesome treat for those with a taste for the macabre, and does exactly what it says on the tin, delivering a series of strange delights for children and adults alike to wonder at.

Credit: Phil Conrad

The show is based on the story collection by Mick Jackson of the same name, and Arthur Pita has brought it to life with all the jaundiced grins, other-worldly characters, and abundant playfulness of the best creepy children’s stories. A cast of six dancers switch from an initial ensemble of black-clad narrators through an array of painted masks and colourful costumes, weaving together a selection of stories that range from the peculiar to the downright mad. A boy brings mounted butterflies back to life to wreak revenge upon their captor; a bored and wealthy Lady hires a hermit to live in her cave and write philosophical musings; a distracted schoolboy falls asleep in geography and never wakes up — until after he’s been buried. This is a world of quirky, awful, passionate beings, where murder is first on the menu and animals won’t just bite back, they’ll sing. Beautifully crafted choreography lifts these stories, showing us the size of their characters through writhing, twitchy, potent movements, that are as much in tune with the music as they are with their characters’ internal rhythms. It’s like having a whole new set of Roald Dahl characters brought to life before your very eyes with dance.

The score is stunning and so full of the spirit of live storytelling — spoons, a Jew’s harp, ukelele, and keyboard organ are picked up, dropped, and played with performative flair before our very eyes, with onstage musician Frank Moon integrating live music with the pre-recorded tracks — composed by him along with Bev Lee Harling. The songs are very haunting and carry you into their dark embrace like the most bittersweet of lullabies, and overlaid saws, wailing, and cymbals create so much atmosphere and tone it is impossible to resist. At times the sounds went right through me — it was chilling and wonderful.

I was so impressed with the breadth and inventiveness of this production. Any moment where the comedy was growing too loud, it would flip into a slower movement sequence: a character drowning at sea, the butterflies’ wings floating with a blossoming fullness that completely stole my gaze. Likewise, if the story began to slip away, the smallest joke or interlude would pull us right back in. It has so many shades and is so wonderfully in control of its many mediums. The cast are all expert movers, with the interludes that punctuate the stories providing many opportunities for them to display their virtuosity with flamboyance, joy, and humour.

Credit: Phil Conrad

There were some stories that could have pushed the comedy of movement even further, and at times I felt they held back on delivering the deadliest blow available. A sweet refrain of the characters that they are sorry — for killing in the name of art, for running away from home, for making up fibs — ties things together very nicely, but also means we are denied the final punch that some of the tales deserve. While the masks were immediately transporting, there were times when they got in the way of the dancers’ performances, and one of the stories suffers as a result of the technical demands made on the dancers to match their voices to a pre-recorded track. This is not a persistent issue, and they frequently served to elevate the size of the characters — as with the Pearce sisters who gut fish, and eventually humans.

Overall, this was a stellar production with a clear handle on its genre, and a very effective combination of dance and musical styles within a quirky Gothic bedtime story format. I would love to see them push the darkness even further, and continue to make work that doesn’t apologise for leaning in to the wonderful pleasures of the strange.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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