The Tiger’s Bones and Other Stories – Polka Theatre, London

Writer: Ted Hughes
Director: Jack McNamara
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier

Ted Hughes’ poetry – dark, brooding, carnal, often brutal – is some of the most adult stuff in the British canon. But he was a children’s author too, most famously writing the widely loved and troubling The Iron Man.

Now London’s favourite children’s theatre the Polka is staging a triplet of short plays, originally conceived of by Hughes as radio plays to be broadcast live into classrooms.

The change of media is risky. The richness of language that carried the plays in their incarnation as solely spoken word is weakened by dilution with theatre’s visual aspect. The cast, under director Jack McNamara, hasthemselves to fill in all the stage business unmeant (and so unaided) by the playwright. But it works, on the whole.

The programme gets off to a shaky start with The Coming of the Kings, a quirky retelling of the Christmas story from the perspective of an ambitious Bethlehem innkeeper and his go-getting wife.

The play is in verse, and the cast struggles a little to get into the rhythms of the language (and indeed to remember their lines). It’s left to Harry Egan to redeem the piece with his cameos as a narcissistic American Pharisee and a pleasingly Yorkshire Joseph; Ed Thorpe is also strong as the fortune-teller.

Sean, the Fool, the Devil and the Cats is up next: a slick, dark go-seek-your-fortune fable with a nasty final twist. This play works the best of the three, with Egan calculating and cricket-jumpered as the eponymous Sean, and Heather Dutton and George Eggay having great fun with their roles as Devil and cat respectively.

Amelia Jane Hankin’s spindly bamboo set comes into its own, mutating from twisty forest to Devil-house to rich man’s mansion as the cast writhes and squeezes through its bars and crevices.

The last play, The Tiger’s Bones, looks and sounds beautiful, but lacks the coherent shape of the first two. “Dawn must be God’s own favourite hour of the twenty-four”, begins the versatile Egan, this time as porter to a Scientology-reminiscent sect convinced that a meteor is about to destroy the earth.

The story of their wrong-headed obsession with “progress” is neat, moral and blackly comic. But the coda episode of the tiger’s bones feels like a bolt-on, visually dramatic though it is.

The plays as a set are darkly entertaining, at once straightforward and sophisticated. McNamara has done us a favour in revisiting them.

Runs until 28 February 2016 | Image: Contributed

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