Have you ever wondered what the stepsisters really thought of Cinderella? Or how Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma felt about having a wolf in her bed? Why were Jack and his mother so poor they had to sell their cow for a handful of beans? These questions and many more are answered in The Magic Hour, a fabulous one-woman show that retells traditional fairy tales from the perspective of the previously sidelined female characters.

Truly accomplished acting and writing make The Magic Hour one of the most enjoyable pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time. Vanessa Bates’ darkly funny script crackles with wit and intelligence, and in the hands of Ursula Yovich it comes to life in the most magical of ways.

As the audience files into the theatre, Yovich is already onstage to greet her viewers. She wanders the stage with a cup of tea, sometimes sitting in a moment of reflection,  watching us watch her. Her warmth and generosity tells us that this piece of theatre is very much a shared experience, and we are in safe hands.

Bates’ script is varied in content and style; she has thought deeply about each character, and she uses language expertly to convey each woman’s unique personality. The main storyteller often speaks in metaphor and rhyming couplets; a teenage character punctuates almost every sentence with ‘like’; the heroin addict’s simple yet genuine language evokes her backstory simply and effectively. The real triumph of Bates’ writing is her ability to bring these tales into the here and now, whilst never losing touch with the tradition and sanctity that is innate to storytelling itself.

Yovich is an open and honest performer; she renders each character wonderfully, imbuing every woman with a history, heart and mind of her own. Cinderella’s stepsister fiddles constantly with her scarf; Rapunzel’s witch is hunched but strong; a sock puppet telling of The Frog Prince sees three characters evoked at once. Woven into each story are original songs (composed by Joe Lui); Yovich’s voice is rich and evocative, and the music works beautifully with the other elements of the play. Every tale has a mood of its own, and Yovich rises to the challenge with gusto, each story as riveting as the one before.

Lighting (Joe Lui) and set design by Alicia Clements (who also designed the costumes) is some of the most magical I have ever seen. Clements’ vision of a fairy/gypsy-style caravan, covered in pastel-toned shutters and drawers, is a treasure trove of props and costumes; cupboards open to show a mesmerising collection of potion-like bottles, Yovich retreats inside to play out a puppet show; a ladder is ascended to the upstairs ‘tower’. The set enriches every element of the play, without distracting or upstaging Yovich, and Clements is to be congratulated on its beauty and utility. Special mention must also go to the lighting effect used to depict Jack’s beanstalk, which saw a strand of lights rise from behind the caravan and into the sky, eliciting cries of delight not only from me but many others in the audience.

Direction from Chris Bendall is assured and effective; he and Yovich have collaborated brilliantly to ensure that the piece not only tells the story of each fairy tale, but explores the meaning of storytelling itself, full of magic and dreaming and imagination.

The Magic Hour is a delightful celebration of women and stories; it has a lot to say, and says it simply but profoundly. One can only hope that this latest tour is not its final one.