‘Just So Stories’ (Bedfringe, 24 July 2022)

“Written on the hearts of each generation are sentiments and thoughts first put there by Rudyard Kipling. This show honours and amplifies that legacy.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars (Outstanding)

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1935) is how surprising he is. The quantity of his written output is surprising. The quality of his work, the texture of the language, is surprising. His grandeur and simplicity are surprising. His life story and the times in which he lived are full, chockablock, with surprises. There are even people – simple, honest, but let’s face it, a bit thick – who are surprised that a gentleman writing more than a century ago, in times divergent from our own, had different attitudes, prides, and prejudices from our ours. For me, the most surprising thing about Kipling, it gets me every time, is the enduring and universal appeal of his stories for children. No matter the age, they speak to a certain age with a kindliness and clarity that never fades.

We enter to find the stage populated with performers from across the English-speaking world. This is the first time they have ever met in di persona personalmente. This is a team of star strikers and heavy hitters. Faces familiar to fringegoers for many years. Here is a collaboration between Bedford’s own Blackout Theatre Company and the highly-respected Central Standard Theatre in Kansas City whose motto – “World class… expect nothing less” – says it all. Despite the miles and the enforced separation of recent years, will they do justice to Kipling’s majesty as well as their own considerable reputations?

We set out with ‘The Butterfly That Stamped’, journey alongside ‘The Cat Who Walked by Himself’, and arrive at the ultimate just-so destination, ‘The Elephant’s Child’. The performance takes the form of a rehearsed reading with carefully-studied, wonderfully-evocative percussive accompaniment. John Story – MFA Sound Design University of Missouri-Kansas City – who adapted the stories for the stage, is a renowned Sound Designer who has worked on productions ranging from high opera to low comedy.

He starts proceedings by quartering the audience giving each a sound to make – the desert winds, the noise of camels, the mumbling of their drivers, the chatter of the womenfolk. The hothouse Bedfringe studio transforms into an exotic caravan en route to the court of Suleiman-bin-Daoud where the first of our tales is set. I’d have liked to have had one of these conjurings setting up the other two stories as well. It’s the kind of magic that would have had John Story burned at the stake for wizardry in more enlightened times.

The little ones sprawled out on cushions at the front are enwrapped and enchanted throughout. Here’s what Daughter 1.0 (7yrs) had to say about the show in her letter to her grandfather:

“Dear Grandad, I went to the Bedford Festival Fringe! and we saw the ‘Just So Stories’. Did you ever read some to Mummy and Aunty Sarah? It was very exciting. Three narrators read and the rest made sounds and read a bit too. My favourite story was ‘The Elephant’s Child’. It was funny because the lady who had the elephants voice had a elephant neclase. There was three storys. ‘The Butterful Who Stamped’, ‘The Cat Who Walked by Herself’, and ‘The Elefants Child’. There was lots of drums and a gong and lots of difrant instaments like an empty coconut for horses and a ballown for when the corodoile puled the elephants child’s nose really hard. I really enjoyed it. Lots of love xxx”

For me, a Kipling-inspired show has to be surprising. I wasn’t simply surprised, I was amazed. The stories were told in a way that suggested they might have been written yesterday. They were told fresher than the first week at university. They were told as evocative as the sound of leather on willow. They were told as expertly as you’d want the surgeon who carries out a loved one’s open heart surgery to be. Written on the hearts of each generation are sentiments and thoughts first put there by Rudyard Kipling. This show honours and amplifies that legacy.


Reviewer: Dan Lentell

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