Long before there was Cinderella, there was Yeh Shen, a young girl who lives with her stepmother, stepsister and evil cat. Familiar so far?
The basic plot of this traditional tale is identical to the story of Cinderella that the Western world knows so well. Yeh Shen, however, precedes Cinderella by over a thousand years as part of China’s storytelling tradition. This account is not as child-friendly as Disney’s Cinderella but also not as gruesome as Perrault’s version of the story. Yeh Shen’s only friend is a magical fish, who helps her go to the New Year festival that she really wants to attend. Of course there is a missing slipper but it isn’t as straightforward as the Cinderella story that we are all familiar with.
Since the cast is quite small, the actors all take on several roles, both human and animals. The transitions from character to character are smooth and the energy never falters: it is quite impressive to see how a nasty and selfish stepsister can become a friendly and magical fish. Even the band is live on stage, providing background music and a variety of sound effects.
The use of puppets is particularly skilful in this performance. The animals are given believable movements but do not fail to entertain the children with comedy movements and sound effects too. The actors successfully bring the puppets to life through small costume changes, in order to give the animals a voice. Silhouettes are also cleverly used on the mountains to make the small set look particularly big and mountainous.
There are brief moments of dancing too. The choreography is so beautiful that it would have been great to see more of it throughout the show. The set is quite simple and a few pieces of colourful material could change the set from being Yeh Shen’s home in the mountains to the glamorous New Year festival. It is a true credit to the actors that just through their acting they managed to make each different location convincing.
At times, some of the themes in the show did not seem entirely child-appropriate. An emperor with a severe foot fetish does not feel like it should have a place in a children’s show. The gruesome foot binding that used to be a fashion in China seems like it might be somewhat alarming to children. Still, the children laughed as clearly the actual horror went straight over their heads. Unlike many children’s shows, Yeh Shen had plenty of laughs for the adults too.
Sure, the storyline may seem a bit dark for a children’s show but everything is done so artistically and so tastefully that it is a beautiful performance for the whole family.
Yeh Shen – The Chinese Cinderella played at The Albany and is continuing on a UK tour until 5 April. For more information, see the Yellow Earth website.