A greedy cat eats the world. A man lives with the personification of poverty. A king tests his wife’s compliance in increasingly cruel ways. An ogre challenges a town to a laughing contest. These are some of the stories that come together for Roots, the latest theatrical treat by British company 1927. Loosely inspired by obscure fables and folktales, the stories are mostly light on substance, but a slightly dark sense of whimsy and nostalgic yet ingenious visuals sweeps the audience along.

Roots. Photograph © Leigh Webber

The set for Roots is essentially a blank wall, which comes to life with the animated projections designed by 1927’s co-Artistic Director, Paul Barritt. Each story’s aesthetic differs, though the overall sense is of children’s storybooks and silent films, particularly German Expressionist cinema. Old movies as well as vaudeville are also recalled in Genevieve Dunne and Philippa Hambly’s stark white face paint, which emphasises these two actors’ often wide eyes and puckered mouths. They play most of the characters; the rest are animated ones, which the performers interact with. Occasionally, actor and animation merge, most strikingly in Roots’ first tale about the cat. Hambly’s face appears through little windows in the wall, forming the face of the animated feline, swaggering about, up a tree, or falling through space.

With the addition of Sarah Munro’s costumes, which range from the drab attire of the world’s unluckiest man to the chic black look of a Parisian ant, Roots’ visuals are delightful. The vintage, mildly magical and macabre aesthetic goes hand in glove with Lillian Henley’s lively music, which recalls vaudeville, silent cinema soundtracks and folk music. It’s performed by David Insua-Cao and Francesca Simmons, who are sometimes part of the action, but mostly off to the side in near darkness, playing a mad mix of instruments including electric bass guitar, violin, dulcimer, a donkey’s jaw and saws.

Roots. Photograph © Leigh Webber

Adding to Roots’ aural earthiness is the pre-recorded narration by non-actors. Each story is clearly but unaffectedly narrated by one of 1927’s friends or family, delivering a charming mix of accents including Welsh, Indian and Japanese. The stories themselves, written by co-Artistic Director Suzanne Andrade, were inspired by the titles and brief summaries of folktales in the British Library’s Aarne Index. They are simple snippets, free of morality but usually not without a little nugget of timeless wisdom about humanity’s greed and selfishness. There is a darkness to these tales but, except for the story of two fisherfolk who drown their child in the false expectation of more fish to eat between them, whimsical humour prevails.

Roots is so light on substance that, except for a couple of tales such as the fisherfolk murder, it’s a show that seems best suited to children. However, adults who don’t get distracted looking for profound points and subtext will likely find its timeless wit and enchanting visual style pleasantly refreshing.

Roots is at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until October 6


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