Written by Hannah Kelly; David Jones

Directed by Hannah Kelly & Alice Munday; Immi Wignall & David Jones

Stage Manager: Finn Mason 

Cast: Sam Baxter, Imogen Buckley, Emily Greener, Nathalie Haley, Rea Hughes, Katie Moncaster, Cameron Steen, James Tovey, Alice Watkins, Robin Young

On the first day of the first Liverpool Fringe, Liverpool University Drama Society go public with a pair of original half-hour plays. It’s unlikely that all of those taking part are studying performance, drama or anything obviously related to theatre at all but if not then, in some cases, a rethink ought to be in order. There’s some notable talent on show. 

The first show is Toy Box Fables, written by Hannah Kelly who co-directs with Alice Munday. It comprises two fairy tales and a fable from Aesop interpreted as darkly comic vignettes with sociopolitical twists, all framed by a mother reading to her infant son at bedtime. In a move surely calculated to unsettle, the least childlike actor imaginable is cast in the part. Robin Young is taller than his onstage mother, has a bass voice and looks a shoo-in for playing Captain Hook. It’s an immediate signal that these are not going to be soothing bedtime stories.

Poor overworked Goldilocks (a comically stoic Alice Watkins) ends up being devoured by her employers, three voraciously capitalist bears who are taxing the bees to extinction for fun. A Terry-Thomas style wolf with an image problem meets a Charles Hawtrey grandma in the absence of Red Riding Hood, who clearly can’t find her way anywhere without Google Maps. The Hare and the Tortoise becomes an exposé of colononialist exploitation which leaves the tortoise open to radicalisation.

Watkins returns to play a despicable, drawling Hare who refuses to check her privilege. Grandma is an uproarious, bent-double creation by James Tovey,  channeling Julie Walters’ legendary soup waitress to the increasing frustration of Sam Baxter’s flirty Wolf. Robin Young expands his repertoire of creepy infants by doubling up as the treacherous Baby Bear.

It’s Sam Baxter who stands out though. He’s an assured and versatile presence throughout: a monstrous, smiling Daddy Bear, a hilarious Wolf and as the endlessly humiliated Tortoise his anger is both dangerous and tangible.

Baxter returns to play a further five roles in David Jones’ The Treasure Story. Directed by Immi Wignall and Jones himself, this is an epic, poetic odyssey in miniature recalling both John Donne and Mervyn Peake.

In a small nameless town beside an unknown sea, life and death ebb and flow like the tides. Some dig for treasure to seek their fortune while others pin their hopes on the gambling tables. The narrator is an unnamed traveller. What she eventually finds in this enigmatic haven is not what came to find. Or is it?

Katie Moncaster is our pilgrim narrator for this and she’s riveting. She manages to be ethereal and down to earth all at once with expresssive, haunting eyes and a wonderful clarity of voice. There’s excellent physicality and comic upper-class-twittishness from Cameron Steen and memorable, sorrowful intensity from Rea Hughes. Emily Greener (previously a dangerously aloof Mummy Bear) returns here and has an unforgettable, lyrical exchange with Moncaster about the nature of existence.

The Treasure Story tantalises, both with its narrative and the possibilities a fully staged version might offer. It’s such a strange, intriguing and evocative tale, feeling simultaneously ancient and modern. Both plays are an effective, enjoyable showcase for the LUDS and for Liverpool Fringe, with some unexpectedly exciting talents making their debuts.