‘Go to sleep, go to sleep…’ A familiar lullaby twists into discordance. The unsettling theme music to English Touring Theatre’s podcast, F**ked Up Bedtime Stories, sets the tone for this series of short stories for grownups by some of the most exciting writers in British theatre. I wouldn’t advise listening to them before bed, unless you fancy entering a nightmare scripted by someone else as a break from your own dreams (full content warnings are on ETT’s website). As the introduction to each episode reminds us, ‘We didn’t call them fucked up for nothing’. I would, however, advise that you listen to these stories and listen in a way that means you can give them the attention they deserve. Walking around with my headphones in, I’ve wanted to press pause on the world – the traffic noise, the never-ending building work, even people talking too loudly – to climb further inside the story that is playing inside my ears.
I really appreciated English Touring Company’s decision to commission short stories rather than monologues. (Nothing against monologues, but it already feels like we are saturated by ‘COVID-secure’ one-person shows as a viable form of socially distanced live performance in theatre buildings). The majority of ‘Bedtime Stories’ are written in the third person. This results in a slightly different emphasis from the insistent, monologic ‘I’, making it possible to play with different points of view, though often stories and narrators will lean into one character. For instance, Vivienne Franzmann’s darkly charming story, ‘The Man, the Man’s Mother, and the Dog, and the Uninspired Title, Yeah, Sorry About That’, seems to inhabit the bodies and minds of each of the characters invoked by the title, most especially the dog. Franzmann masterfully shapes the sympathies of the listener through her narrative, which explores the limits of a mother’s love with hints of Roald Dahl; poetic justice is served in a satisfyingly gruesome way.
Tim Crouch’s ‘Milky Drinks’, the first podcast in the series (though the beauty of a podcast is that you do not have to listen to them in sequence) captures the disorientation of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Britain. The narrative style telescopes scale, inside and out, as the story lurches from a nursing home to the highest reaches of the government. Through the unnamed woman – who is definitely not ‘a sweet old lady’ – making masks out of the clothes of her friends who are dying around her, Crouch expresses subtle rage at the government’s morally culpable handling of the crisis, especially the lack of PPE in nursing homes. Amber James’ deadpan delivery makes Crouch’s darkly comic satire cut like a laser.
Several of the other stories also employ satire, reflecting a slightly tilted view of the strange, crepuscular world of lockdown restrictions. Alissa Anne Jeun Yi’s story ‘The Machine’ starts ‘the day the world stood still’, as Maggie negotiates how to fill fill fill the empty time that stretches out in front of her. Inspired by her favourite Instagram influencer, she buys a sewing machine that becomes an obsession, like a kind of twenty-first-century Rumpelstiltskin. Jeun Yi writes some excellent one-liners, delivered perfectly by James, Maggie considering herself ‘an Asian Kirstie Alsop, with more of a moral boner for Jeremy Corbyn’. Amy Jeptha’s ‘Breathe’, a satirical mindfulness exercise, makes the most of the audio format. Over Max Pappenheim’s sound design, which incorporates windchimes, electronic music and crashing waves, James directs the listener’s breathing with a voice that manages at once to sound soothing and dangerous. As someone who has used meditation apps to try to get to sleep, I found it quite disturbing and longed for slightly more escapism.
Anthony Neilson and Matilda Ibini’s stories deliver this escapism, verging further into the fantastical. Neilson’s ‘The Ground Floor’ tells the story of a man returning to live alone in his mother’s house after the breakdown of his marriage. One day, he loses the ground floor and the darkness starts to rise. Neilson’s writing style is reminiscent of a Victorian ghost story or The Woman in Black, Paapa Essiedu’s heart-quickening delivery spreading the anxiety of the narrator. Ibini’s ‘Don’t Panic. Don’t Move’ explores sleep paralysis – both from the sleeper, Vi’s, perspective, and from the perspective of a supernatural creature who comes to sit on her chest at night and walk through her dreams. The creature is not allowed to sleep when he is on duty, denied the ‘pocket of escapism from being alive’, as Vi puts it. As in the best short stories, Ibini concludes with a twist, as Vi makes a Faustian pact with the creature.
Bodies are a theme that runs through the podcast series (perhaps intriguingly given the sense of disembodiment suggested by only hearing a performer’s voice): breathing, pricking one’s finger, fading out of life. But there are also out-of-body experiences: bodies dissolving, melting, burning, such as Franzmann’s arresting image of the ‘Man’s Mother’ bursting into flame, before painstakingly reassembling herself. Dipo Baruwa-Etti directs attention to black bodies and pain in the most powerful story of the collection, ‘Then I Heard a Black Man Cry’ (look up the content warnings before you listen). The story’s structure echoes with fairy-tales as Mr and Mrs Olanrewaju are persuaded to give away their son Rotimi to their white landlord, Blanche, who promises to give him the thing they cannot give: ‘an inheritance’. Rotimi seems to have everything he can wish for, but things take a disturbing turn when Blanche takes him into her bed on his 18th birthday and starts using his body to make ‘art’. Events escalate sickeningly, Rotimi at first participating in his own exploitation as if he can consent to it, then realising what Blanche has done to him. ‘Shouldn’t art be provocative?’, Blanche muses, as she exploits Rotimi’s body and profits from his pain. The story could be interpreted as a parable of what it means to be a black person living under white supremacy. It is also, itself, an expertly crafted work of art, while interrogating the ethics of making art about black trauma. Sensitively read by Essiedu, it’s vital listening.
There have been various points in the last six months when I’ve found the idea of sitting down to watch a full-length, live-streamed piece of theatre overwhelming. The English Touring Theatre’s F**ked up Bedtime Stories, all between 13 and 23 minutes long, are a good length to combat this sense of being overwhelmed (or at least not to contribute to it further). You can listen to one on a short walk or getting ready and give yourself the satisfaction of resolution that is inherent in the short story form. As well as the common themes, Jennifer Bakst’s directing and James and Essiedu’s performances tie the series together, making it as pleasurable to binge the series as to ration out each episode. I have already listened to Tim Crouch and Dipo Baruwa-Etti’s stories again, to try to hold their craft in my head a little longer. I still wouldn’t recommend listening just before bed.