What is a Thrupenny Tale?

What is a Thrupenny Tale?

What can an audience expect from Thrupenny Tales? Carla Keen from The Ministry of Unplanned Occurrences tells us a little bit about their upcoming show at the Corpus Playroom.

The tagline for Thrupenny Tales is ‘Sensational supernatural unscripted tales inspired by Victorian pulp stories’ - what exactly does this mean?


Thrupenny Tales takes its influence from penny dreadfuls, a popular form of literature in the 1800s. They were quite different from the epic works of authors like Charles Dickens, getting to the ‘fun’ gruesome or romantic plot points far speedier than novels. As author George Augustus Sala wrote in 1861 they contain:

‘a world of…gipsies and brigand-chiefs, men with masks and women with daggers, of stolen children, withered hags, heartless gamesters, nefarious roués, foreign princesses, Jesuit fathers, gravediggers, resurrection-men, lunatics and ghosts.’


What better way to thrill readers than to weave tales of ghosts and the undead? But also because of the rapidly changing nature of the era, myths and urban tales developed around new technology and scientific endeavour. Mysterious ghostly images appeared in photographs due to exposure; body-snatching exploded because of the thirst for cadavres for medical dissection; Cambridge’s own Charles Darwin posited that humans evolved from apes…the invention of the telephone, the gramophone…the list goes and this curiosity around new technology was reflected in the penny dreadfuls.


One the most unique parts of Thrupenny Tales is that each one is entirely improvised. This works incredibly well for building tension because no-one – not even the cast knows exactly what will happen. There is a continuous mystery and discovery for both the audience and the characters.


The era gives the feel and flavour for our tales. Dark streets, black cloaks, rogues and scientists…interestingly, Penny Dreadfuls came just before the Universal Education Act, so arguably were one of the biggest contributors to an increase in literacy. You can’t find out what happened next if you can’t read about it!

Pulp Stories

Penny Dreadfuls were serialised in pamphlets of a dozen pages or so bought for just a penny. If they were released now they might be closest to soap operas, reality TV, video games…certainly disavowed by the literary establishment as ‘trashy’. There was a similar moral panic around these stories very similar to rap or heavy metal today.

Thrupenny Tales runs at the Corpus Playroom all this week from 7pm. Get your tickets now here.