Writers: Tim Crouch, Alissa Anne Jeun-Yi, Anthony Neilson, Matilda Ibini, Vivienne Franzmann, Dipo Baruwa-Etti, and Amy Jephta
Director: Jennifer Bakst
We have all felt a particular sense of disruption in the last few months, feelings of displacement and isolation during the day and disrupted sleep at night. And, if having someone soothe your cares away with some calming Jackanory sounds like bliss, then stay away from the English Touring Theatre’s F**ked Up Bedtime Stories (for Adults) because these atmospherically creepy tales will keep you awake into the small hours for all the wrong reasons.
Seven writers have produced 12- to 25-minute stories read either by Amber James or Papa Essiedu, each one part of a series of ‘strange stories for stranger times’ and directed by Jennifer Bakst. From creepy mansions, to machinery taking on a life of its own, morality tales, dark political satires and twisted fairy stories, this is a well-cultivated and delightfully spooky series of new works.
Best among them is Antony Neilson’s Lovecraft and Poe-inspired The Ground Floor, the third drama running at 17-minutes and read by Essiedu. Writer of The Tell-Tale Heart at the National Theatre in 2018, Neilson is a proponent of this style, employing the psychological tools of horror-writing with particular skill, building suspense by revelling in the sensory detail that immerses the audience in the drama by giving everyday activity a sinister overtone. Neilson is particularly adept with language, using words like “shrouded” and “jolted” so redolent of this genre, while his storytelling is vivid and theatrical.
Equally enjoyable is the more surprising final story written by Amy Jephta that mimics the style of wellness podcasts and Amber James’ soft, slow delivery lulls the listener into a relaxed state. Breathe – An Audio Journey runs at just 13-minutes, but the whispery tone seeks to earn your trust before developing a warped sensation of control. Max Pappenheim’s sound design evokes the warm comfort of mindfulness soundscapes before darker tones appear in the music in the second half.
Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s Then I Heard a Black Man Cry uses the structure of fairy tales to tell a distorted Sleeping Beauty story in which the baby son of a poor couple is raised in the countryside by a wealthy benefactor. But Baruwa-Etti has something much stranger in mind, drawing on an Adam and Eve temptation framework that evolves seamlessly into a critique of sensationalist modern art and how easily close relationships can be tainted and abused.
Among the remaining stories, Alissa Anne Jeun-Yi’s tale of a demanding sewing machine becomes a 23-minute allegory on the absorptive and cyclical nature of influencers and social media that causes the protagonist Maggie to lose contact with the outside world. Read by James, there is an expressiveness to Jeun-Yi’s writing that creates vibrant storytelling. Milk Drinks by Tim Crouch is a brief but smart satire on mask wearing, Matilda Ibini’s Don’t Panic, Don’t Move is a slightly overlong exploration of sleep paralysis, while Vivienne Franzmann relocates the audience to the scorching summer heat of Italy for a tale of animal abuse and revenge.
Some of the longer pieces take a little while to get going and you might hope that others were longer, but F**ked Up Bedtime Stories are an eclectic mix of scenarios and writing styles while Essiedu and James skilfully adapt their delivery to suit the particular demands of each tale. So, climb into bed, turn off the lights and let these seven writers take you away from it all… don’t have nightmares!
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