Delicately nuanced readings from Deborah Findlay bring Mansfield’s stories vividly to life as part of this candlelit series.

The beautiful candlelit interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Pic Pete le May

The beautiful candlelit interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Pic Pete le May

Winter’s Tales are based on a beautifully simple idea –  invite top actors to narrate a selection of classic stories, with live music played alongside. The result is something like a very successful cross between Jackanory and Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.

Each author has their own dedicated evening, with The Playhouse’s flickering candlelight creating a cosy fireside feel.

Deborah Findlay reads four of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, with accompaniment from cellist Clare O’Connell. Findlay (who excelled as Volumnia in the Donmar’s 2013 Coriolanus), begins with perhaps Mansfield’s most celebrated short story, The Garden Party.

Young Laura is the only person in the family who feels the horror of a local workman’s death, and can’t understand why no one else feels they should cancel their extravagant garden party plans when a man lies dead in a nearby cottage, mourned by his widow and five children. That is, until she catches sight of herself looking suddenly different in a rather charming new hat…

Findlay effortlessly characterises everyone from cheery marquee-builders to drifting mamas in the story. She  finds humour in the domestic tensions, and the class divides that Laura tries to cast aside in her grown-up, blissful sense of how delightful ordinary workers can be.

Pictures follows, featuring the indomitable Miss Moss – relentlessly cheerful and optimistic as she imagines good food and prestigious jobs for a well-covered contralto. It’s a great piece of storytelling from Mansfield, and from Deborah Findlay, who perfectly conjours up the chilly bedroom, the remorseless landlady andy the cigar-wreathed blandishments of Miss Moss’s male meal-ticket.

The second half is just as accomplished, but the stories don’t carry quite the same intensity or appeal. In The Fly, a boss who’s lost his son in war slowly tortures a fly to death by dropping ink blots onto it. Bliss tells of a young wife’s sudden sensual awakening, which sadly coincides with her husband’s ill-concealed affair with her new best friend.

Cellist Clare O’Connell is a founder member of ensemble CHROMA, currently dazzling at the Vaudeville in the ROH’s  production of The Wind in the Willows. Here she plays beautifully paced pieces between the stories. These are not credited in the programme, though as O’Connell is a curator and champion of new music, perhaps they were composed for the occasion.

It might be interesting to interweave some of the music into the stories themselves, but played as interludes, O’Connell creates a tender, rousing mood.

Mansfield’s delicacy of touch, combined with coolly detached but minute observation, makes her work both accessible and challenging. And as interpreted by Ms Findlay, this is an evening to provoke and entertain.

Still to come:

James Joyce, read by Aiden Gillen. Feargal Murray, piano. Monday 29 December, 7.30pm.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, read by James Norton. Gwilym Simcock, piano. Sunday 4 January, 2.30pm.

Daphne Du Maurier, read by Harriet Walter. Monday 5 January, 7.30pm.

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