The Travelling Talesman: A Review by Claire Lewis

It is a dark, if not stormy, evening as I arrive at the Art House for The Travelling Talesman’s new show, Haunted! Having already seen two of his shows – Nectar of the Gods and Changed! – I know I am in for a real treat: an evening of mesmerising, mythological tales, delivered by Cliff Eastabrook aka the Talesman – a charismatic, engaging, musically talented, and frankly hilarious storyteller.

This time there is additional entertainment from the equally talented Damien Clarke, providing folk songs and ballads, accompanying on dulcimer and hurdy-gurdy. The evening promises to be chilling as well as entertaining, as we will be hearing tales of the nearly-departed, or as The Talesman says himself: “Dead people who won’t go away. The ex-corporated that just can’t move on.”

As expected, the Gallery at the Art House is packed, an energy of anticipation in the air as we all willingly suspend our disbelief at the door. Who knows where the next two hours will take us… Cliff and Damien take the stage, suitably attired, their theatrical makeup and the ghostly green up-lighting giving them an air of decrepitude; Cliff especially, in top hat and tails, has the air of a recently exhumed Victorian undertaker.

The scene is set with hurdy-gurdy creaking and an ominous rumble from the thunder tube as we are led straight into the Tale of the Dauntless Girl (part one), a farmer’s girl who is afraid of nothing. She, as part of a dare to her farmer, goes into the deadhouse at her local churchyard to fetch a skull bone. She persists, despite a ghostly voice warning her to “Put that down” every time she picks up a skull. She comes out of this tale rather well – not so the poor sexton, who, in on the dare, is locked in the dead house in pitch black when she blows out the candle and leaves, and dies of fright.

The Girl turns up later, again dauntless, again triumphant, this time going into the cellar with the ghost of a rich young man’s dead mother, who it turns out has simply been wanting to tell him where she left his inheritance. The girl does rather well out of this, getting a large bag of gold for her trouble, and living happily ever after, the only character in these tales who does. Cliff confesses that he misses the happy endings while researching ghost stories.

In between the individual stories and songs Cliff gives us an insight into his research: around 99% “of ghost stories are s**t”, types one and two are basically “we saw a ghost, then someone died” or “someone died, then we saw a ghost”. He is, understandably, interested in the ones where something actually happens, as these make for a much better show. We learn that two of the main reasons ghosts come back are love and unfinished business.

Horrible people are seen as a subsection of unfinished business, with the suggestion that they come back because they “simply haven’t finished being horrible yet”, as in the tale of Lady Mary Howard of Fitzford House, Tavistock. Having killed four husbands with mysterious fevers, she is finally finished off by a fever herself, but comes back to haunt in high gothic style – she rides out to Okehampton Castle in a coach constructed from the bones of her dead husbands, drawn by four headless horses, led by a red-eyed black dog. Cliff accompanies himself for this tale on “Steve” a horizontal stringed instrument, played by cranking a handle which moves claws to pluck the strings. He describes this as a “thing that was once alive in my head” that died in the real world, prompting yet more laughter.

We are also advised of some pertinent Do’s and Don’ts of dealing with ghosts, though number three may only be of use if you’re on the Okehampton to Tavistock road in Devon, thankfully:

  1. Don’t be afraid.
  2. Ask them why they’re there.
  3. Don’t get into a coach made of bones driven by a dead widow who killed all her husbands.

You have been warned!

Cliff is a consummate Talesman: outside interruptions are woven seamlessly into his tale, without a moment’s hesitation. The tale of a blind Japanese monk playing the lute to a deceased Japanese warrior clan, is brought bang up to date by a mobile phone ringing and a distant Oompah band at the nearby Oktoberfest – this becomes his fellow monks calling his mobile phone to no avail as they frantically search the town for him, to a sonic backdrop of Oompah music.

Over the course of the evening, Cliff and Damien treat us to a whirlwind tour of ghostly happenings, from border ballads and folk songs of lost loves, to a quarrel continued beyond death, with the ghostly opponent smoked out with “the best Indian weed” from the newly discovered Americas; from the UK to Japan, where the tale of the Slit Mouthed Woman is all the more chilling for her question to victims of “Am I beautiful?” which cannot be answered correctly – either way you die horribly by her scissors. At this point Cliff brandishes what look like antique garden shears towards the front row, who cower theatrically.

The theme of ghosts is appropriate for this pre-Halloween gathering, linking both to the history within the very walls of this and every city, and to the ghosts we carry with us wherever we travel. It seems fitting for a festival focusing on heritage and diversity, and on your voice being heard, be it in this life or the afterlife.

I asked fellow audience members for their thoughts after the show. Ophelia Immortal, attending her third show, said that “The music added an extra element” and that Cliff is “very good at making you see the story”, also commenting that you “get your pennies worth”; Karen Brown, seeing him for the first time tonight, agreed, also adding that she “can see why he’s been able to make a living as a Travelling Talesman”.

If you didn’t make it along to The Art House performance fear not, lucky Southampton people, as there is another performance of Haunted! at The Dancing Man Brewery on Halloween, 31 October. It’s not ticketed so just turn up on the night.

Words and photos by Claire Lewis.

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