Writers: Tanya Holt and Robin Kingsland
Director: Robin Kingsland
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Britain has a strong tradition of comic verse for children using outrageous tales of the naughty and stupid as warnings on how to behave, authored by such luminaries as Roald Dahl, Edward Lear and, of course, Hilaire Belloc, who wrote the most famous collection of Cautionary Tales. Building on his legacy with a 21st Century twist, Tanya Holt and Robin Kingsland’s new show offers plenty of up-to-date advice for young women.
Part stand-up, part cabaret show, Cautionary Tales for Daughters is a compendium of advice gathered from over 200 people, wrapped in a comic song format. Every anecdote, guidance note and catastrophe is based on someone’s real experience so whether Holt warns against getting a Justin Bieber tattoo, wanting to be a cowboy rather than a princess or why fame-seeking women are treated worse than men, there’s a tinge of reality behind it all.
The early part of the show is largely humorous as Holt sings comic tune after comic tune, whether it be Ip Dip Sky Blue about a popular girl who spent her whole life waiting for the perfect man who never came or the pushy mum who warns her child that taking part is pointless because “winning is where it’s at”, Holt’s music is occasionally interspersed with her own experiences to frame the transitions between songs which warms the audience to her engaging style, and the multiple perspectives enrich the approach.
Just before the interval, things take a darker turn with a song called Harsh Lullaby about postnatal depression that uses a refrain from Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and most of the songs in the second half have more serious and sinister undertones. Ageing, drinking, women’s right, eating disorders and domestic violence form the main discussion, again all taken from real life experiences, which the semi-comic nature of the songs actually supports well – although the style becomes a little relentless.
Not everything works perfectly; a song about obsession with designer labels is a little trite alongside the weightier subjects of the second half, while a song from a father’s perspective about his daughter alone with a teenage boy seems a little antiquated in some of its beliefs about sexuality and teenage behaviour. The structure is also a little confusing, jumping at random between different topics whereas the songs could be arranged by age with the stories about babies and children early on, leading to teenage issues, obsessing over image and weight, before the liberation of middle-age.
Holt’s varied style does, however, make for a witty and entertaining evening, mixing just enough non-threatening audience interact to keep the cabaret aspect alive, while Birgitta Kenyon’s piano and vocal accompaniment is well pitched in the small Jermyn Street space while providing a straight-man for some of the jokes.
Cautionary Tales for Daughters offers a wealth of advice and guidance on battling many of life’s pitfalls. It may be aimed at daughters but there’s plenty of good sense for sons as well, and while some of its presentation is perhaps a tad old-fashioned – aimed more at the middle-aged theatre-goer than the social media savvy millennial – it revives and extends an important comic tradition.
Runs until 11 February 2017 (then touring) | Image: Contributed