The start of Brice Stratford’s hour-long story leaves you in no doubt that you’re about to witness a folk artist at work – he warmly welcomes everyone whilst lining up his numerous pints onstage. These serve an important purpose, far beyond the lubrication of the throat for an hour of talking – they’re key props, used to fill pauses, emphasise certain key points, and most importantly, make it seem as though the whole audience is just sitting around a camp fire, listening to a story that’s been passed through generations.
For that’s what we’re all seeking from this performance, a kind of aural time travel, something nostalgic and fundamental to the human condition. Shared stories are the foundation stone of cultures, and Brice’s Storytelling harks to the traditional fairy tale end of the spectrum. He recounts a tale of a strong, clever girl from a royal family in an evil kingdom, where faeries, giants and demigods rub shoulders.
Rich in metaphor, his unwinding story rests on predictable archetypes one would expect from the magical, dynastic context – epic journeys, poisoned goblets of wine, and wicked family members a plenty. Brice’s delivery is mellifluously measured and warm. He knows how to make you lean in a little closer, and has mastered the emphatic pause, pint in hand or not – a raconteur of old. He sits, bard-like, centrestage, occasionally springing up and walking around to illustrate a particular character, or to vary the pace and keep the audience from drifting. Occasionally it was too obviously the latter, and rather than preserving the story’s spell, pulled focus and felt jarring.
Between chapters of the story, Brice brings the audience in as collaborators, talking expansively about how oral storytelling is different to physical performance. He downplays his role, saying that all he does is speak the words that provoke our own minds to create the visual story ourselves. This is ostensibly empowering, and takes steps towards creating a collective sense of artistic collusion, however, there was a limit to the height this night could reach.
Disappointingly, there is none of the London folklore that the marketing promised, and this is a significant problem that needs to be addressed. On the Vault Festival website, the event is described as a ‘blistering, unexpected, unpredictable tour of the folk tales, myths and legends of London’, and promises that Brice ‘discovers fresh some of the murkiest old fragments of London lore.’ Audience members might therefore book expecting something that would make them feel engaged to the city. I certainly anticipated sitting in the depths of Waterloo train station, listening to stories of some of the city’s darker pasts – but London was not mentioned once.
Another key issue that cropped up was inconsistent detail – were there 33 sisters or 32 in the story? At certain points, after the death of one, there were a few slip ups. More head scratchingly, how could a character blinded with age, see the face of her long lost love, which so crucially underpinned the climax of the evening. This ending came very abruptly, and was prompted by looking at the time on his phone (performers’ phones on stage always break the spell). This was directly at odds with the methodical, slow paced narrative that had preceded it. As such, I can’t actually remember the end, which is a shame when you’ve invested so much over the course of an hour.
As a traditional storyteller every breath, every tiny pause and movement, and yes, every sip of your pint, needs to serve the story. Your words, and the pace at which you say them, are all that exist in the room to carry your performance, and yet I often felt that Brice never quite settled into his rhythm. His movements and fidgeting sometimes detracted from the story, even though he displayed a prowess in his performance that promised better things. Perhaps it was just an off night, but ultimately we never quite succumbed to his spell.
CAST AND CREATIVES
Storyteller – Brice Stratford