Shifter, Crick Crack Club at Soho Theatre

Going to a Crick Crack Club storytelling event is a bit like joining a private members’ club. This club doesn’t have strict entry criteria, nor is it cold and exclusive – quite the opposite. A welcoming spirit of community and the use of ritual enhance Jan Blake’s and TUUP’s four globe spanning stories. The first half of the two-hour, four-story Shifter has sturdier narratives, but the tales of trickery and metamorphosis interspersed with simple call and response create a magical, engrossing evening despite a few structural shortcomings.

We begin in Scotland, where young prince Raymond on a hunting trip meets a beautiful woman in the depths of the forest. He takes her home and the two soon marry. After many years and the births of their ten children who all have some sort of foreshadowing deformity, the prince makes a surprising discovery after spying on his wife whilst she bathes one evening. After a public reveal, the myth quickly relocates to a chateau in France, where inexplicable marks on a high window ledge are made clear. The prince is very much the victim of his bride’s deceit, but their love is also held up for admiration. Told by TUUP, this story is particularly male focused, demonising the female but also giving her power. It would be an interesting experiment to see what a woman storyteller could bring to this story. The climax and denouement are rushed, but the final line satisfies. TUUP has a relaxed, magnetic presence and his delivery of this warped love story is endowed with empathy and respect.

Blake now takes us to the Gulla Islands off the coast of America, one of the first settlements by African slaves. This is a another love story, again with a man who falls in love with a powerful, shape-shifting woman. Mary is less friendly than Raymond’s wife, and the threat to hew new husband John is tangible in Blake’s telling. This unnamed tale alludes to Rumpelstiltskin and Sleeping Beauty with the prominence of a spinning wheel and mysterious nighttime happenings. The strongest of the four stories in Shifter, its madness and imminent danger give this story a thrill, heightened by the various percussive instruments TUUP uses to accompany.

After the interval, two tribal, pre-Christian tales evoke the savannahs of Africa and the prestige that comes with being a successful hunter. The morals in these stories aren’t about the fear of powerful women in the Christian West; they more broadly apply to all humanity – don’t allow yourself to lose sight of your life goals, and practice rather than magic will bring you success. This half has a more epic sense of coverage, but the narrative arcs are less familiar to Western stories. They are more rounded, with a greater sense of the world outside of the characters; this makes them initially unsatisfying, but more universal.

TUUP and Blake both have natural warmth and charisma that draws in the audience like a hug. They are energetic but not ostentatious, simply relying on the rhythms and language of their stories. Much of the pleasure from Shifter comes from their presence, though hearing these stories grants a comfortable sense of inclusiveness despite some rocky moments in the stories themselves.

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