Sitting back in the comfy, cosy Criterion Theatre as the lights go down, I can’t help but already feel a sense of contentment wash over me. Through these late night staged readings, Stories Before Bedtime aims to revive the tradition of reading aloud, and it definitely recalls those childhood memories of a bedtime story so many of us used to enjoy.
This evening’s set of stories/extracts were all chosen as they evoke the events of a hot summer’s day, and formed a complementary, well-balanced programme that was both funny and moving. I hadn’t read any of the selected stories but am determined to read them all now. Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle was read by Sonya Cassidy, and although it was a slow starter, it was also a perfect example of the quality stories have to transport you. Smith’s poetic descriptions demonstrate the power of words to lure you into another world where you’re so much more aware of the beauty . Director Samuel Hodges took note of this with his simple staging, respecting that novels possess their own sense of ‘theatre’.
It would be an ambitious parent that reads Virginia Woolf’s The New Dress to their child at bedtime. But Miranda Richardson’s warm tone and subtle inflections manage to make Woolf accessible and compelling. It’s possible some of Woolf’s biting social commentary was lost on a weary audience at midnight, but Richardson’s delivery captured Woolf’s witty literary voice. These two weightier stories were balanced by Matthew Horne’s reading of The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith. More than the other two actors, Horne acts his reading with a comical animation that the novel couldn’t portray without Horne giving Nobody legs.
Horne’s performance pinpoints the difference between reading in your head, and reading aloud, and how some people may engage more enthusiastically with the oral form of storytelling. Recently I was shocked to discover that my partner has never actually read the Harry Potter series, but listened to it on audio as a child. Stories at Bedtime is an especially active form of storytelling which arguably responds to a technology-fuelled generation that’s bored of books, and is the perfect way to rekindle our love affair with them. I’d go so far to suggest Hodges’ use of visual stimuli such as smoke machines and lighting disrupts the audience’s state of enchantment more than increases it, as the audience are reminded they are sat in a theatre. I found the production values occasionally distracting as they weren’t smoothly integrated into the readings (with the exception of the comically timed bell in The Diary of a Nobody).
Stories Before Bedtime is spectacular as it shares an experience which was so personal between parent and child all those years ago, communally, with the whole audience. Onstage, the readings could be compared to a series of monologues, if it weren’t for the authors’ use of immersive detail and freedom to imagine another world where theatrical productions impose one. It’s similar to how a child conjures a limitless dreamland after their bedtime story. This show revitalises reading, reminding us of their magic by bringing them to life.
Stories Before Bedtime played at the Criterion Theatre on Friday 1 June. For more events at the Criterion Theatre, see the theatre’s website.