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Reviews

Reviews of recent performances
Our lead review this issue is of Jabberwocky at The Little Angel Theatre, with reviews also of two outstanding visiting companies, Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes from Canada and the Tbilisi Marionette Theatre from Georgia, both of which were seen as part of BITE04 at the Barbican, where Burkett continues to play until May 15. We also have a report on Invertigo, an interesting new multi-media performance featuring puppetry.


The Little Angel Theatre- Jabberwocky -
Little Angel, London - Apr 2004
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior


Poetry is such a good starting point for theatre. Unlike the novel, where the detailed narrative, description and dialogue strangle the imagination of all but the most gifted of theatre-makers (see, for example, the National Theatre production of His Dark Materials which gallops through the story, but manages to feel ten paces behind the book at every turn) a poem can be a springboard, a text, a starting point that fires the imagination of the theatre-makers, allowing them space to grow that text into something uniquely theirs.
A case in hand would be Jabberwocky, the first Little Angel Theatre production from new artistic director Steve Tiplady. Taking Lewis Carroll's oh so grammatically correct nonsense poem as the inspiration, the company have created a gorgeous piece of collaborative visual theatre. The production plays on the dream-like mix of logic and absurdity of the poem and explores its themes: growing up, finding your way in the world, knowing when to follow your ancestors and when to carve your own path, squaring the balance between order and freedom, taking action, conquering fear...
Writer Louise Warren develops the poem into the story of Milo, who is on the cusp of his seventh birthday - seven being an age that is traditionally held to be the point at which the child is ready to first step into the outside world on his or her own. To use a lovely phrase coined by Rudolf Steiner, the child steps out from under the cloak of the Madonna (the archetypal world of the mother) into new realms. This is realised beautifully in the production with the puppet Milo being nurtured and tended by human carers at the start of the story - whilst at the end of the story a real-life Milo wakes on his birthday morning to a family of puppets. His conquering of the Jabberwock in his night-time wanderings have transformed him and transported him into a new realm of self-knowledge and independence.
This night-time tale of a journey through a forest is satisfying in its fairy-tale logic: there is a mythic purpose to the journey in the search for the Jabberwock; there are magic guides along the way including some very lovely little mouse-eared mome raths; there are obstacles to overcome and points at which the journey comes to a temporary halt whilst pleasures are savoured. There is only one scene that feels out of synch, when Milo seems to turn momentarily into a different Milo, the one that is the hero of The Phantom Tollbooth, in order to explore the mathematical conundrums of the universe. This section is not aided by a rather Play Away style song about numbers and mathematical concepts. But in the rest of the show, the writing and the musical score, a mix of live cello and recorded soundscape by Hannah Marshall, work very well together. Tiplady's scenography (brought to fruition by designer Peter O'Rourke) is of an exceptional quality rarely found in children's theatre, where for some reason ugly images in primary colours are usually considered good enough. This production is awash with beautiful colour, shape and form. There are triangles that cross the stage in rich olive greens and moody blues with Miro-like black outline; a backlit canvas house that shifts in scale, tree trunks that are sometimes made of lines and shadow, sometimes real wood. The beautifully crafted puppets are in a variety of styles - from traditional jointed string marionettes (Milo himself) to extraordinary rod-operated magical creatures made from all sorts of mixed materials - wood, metal, cloth - an example being the suitably mimsy borogoves, round-bodied birds with beaks like inverted megaphones. On many occasions puppets are manipulated using a mix of techniques, and the team of performer-puppeteers switch happily from one modus operandi to another. The physical presence of the puppeteer often merges beautifully with the puppet itself - an example being Mandy Travis's long-legged red-haired Bandersnatch, who lopes and staggers through the auditorium threatening to eat small children, animated with a gravelly voice that speaks part Dutch and part growly grommeltage.
I found the choice of having an interval a little strange, the shifting in and out of seats that this entails making for a rather disrupted performance, and would thus have felt that it might have been better to cut the production a little and run without a break. But this is a minor gripe. All things considered, this is an excellent piece of children's theatre, filled with images that are still there when I close my eyes and will, I'm sure, resonate for a long time to come.
I hope also that this production proves to be a turning point in the fortunes of Little Angel. Quite apart from their justifiably high standing within the world of puppetry, with Jabberwocky The Little Angel have come to the attention of the broader arts and media world as a serious force in contemporary visual theatre. Let's hope this is the beginning of a new age for The Little Angel Theatre, and that they are consequently supported financially in a way that will relieve the constant strain of project fund-raising.

Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes -Provenance -
BITE04, The Barbican Pit, London - Apr 2004
Reviewed by Chris Abbott


It is the voice we notice first; not just because we hear about the characters before we see them, but because Ronnie Burkett’s voice is such a central part of this major theatrical event. Beginning on a darkened stage dominated by a painting of a naked youth, Provenance is a dark, elegiac piece, enlivened by flashes of wit but shot through with a sombre sense of foreboding. It is a mark of the quality of performance that if the story were to be told by Ronnie with voice alone, it would hold the attention; with the addition of the puppets, we are taken wholly into the world he has created.
The set consists of a series of cupboards for the marionettes, with tree-like translucent covers. A playing area is centre stage with another lower level in front. Most characters are represented by several different puppet forms: marionettes, gloves, rods and heads on headbands. The picture which dominates the stage is of Tender, an androgynous boy stretched against a tree and enfolded by the wings of a swan. It is the search for the painting that takes Pity Beane, a Canadian art student, to a Viennese brothel. As she learns the fate of the picture, we learn more of its subject and those who have owned it. The details of ownership of the picture — its provenance — form the story of the play.
As we learn more about Leda, the Madame of the brothel, Hershel, the last owner of the painting and other Viennese characters, we also learn more about the picture and its subject. Eventually we meet Tender, as a young boy soldier in a kilt, and witness the assault to which he is subjected. It is an intense evening — and it lasts over two hours without an interval — but it is a supremely theatrical one. With its classical allusions, explorations of the meaning of beauty and convincing creation of some unforgettable characters, this is a devastating tour-de-force on the part of Ronnie Burkett.

The Autumn of My Springtime -Tbilisi Marionette Theatre - BITE 04 — Barbican Pit Theatre, London - March 2004
Reviewed by Chris Abbott

Across the darkened auditorium we see tiny lights attached to electricity pylons and small figures stare out at us. As the performance begins we realise we are at a railway station and that the trio of characters who form the main cast in the piece are Varlam (soon to die), his wife Domna, and Boria, a bird who forms a friendship with them. Performed at the Barbican to an audience three times larger than that for which the production was first devised in the Tbilisi Marionette Theatre’s home, The Autumn of My Springtime is a wistful, sad though curiously unaffecting production.
Figures are of many types, from fully strung marionettes with conventional controls to simple figures controlled by head rods. Many of the puppets have carefully carved heads and articulated mouths, but legs are often flat and the many figures seem to drift away into nothing as they reach the ground. Paradoxically, other figures are very much rooted to the floor, such as the figure on crutches who follows Varlam’s funeral procession or some of the rod figures who are operated like English dancing dolls. Playing levels are varied throughout by the careful use of thin pieces of wood which are used to join together a selection of boxes and platforms.
There is a curiously dated feel to this story, hardly surprising given that it was first performed thirty years ago. Today’s Georgia, one feels, would not be as affected as those first audiences must have been by a production in which a character is told that "it is worse to steal from the community fund than it is to rape a nightingale," and in which a courtroom scene manages to satirise the worst of Communist-era justice whilst remaining very familiar to any audience aware of the vagaries of aging, incoherent judges. Once subversive I suspect, the performance now verges on the quaint, which cannot have been the original intention. The interest is mainly historical then, as far as dramaturgy is concerned, but the performers are excellent and their commitment and talent is evident throughout. The surtitles were as intrusive as they always seem to be at small-scale performances, and the combination of a clear synopsis in the programme and the talents of the performers meant that they were hardly necessary. It is good to see another production from this inventive company, and it is to be hoped that audiences at other performances were as enthusiastic as the assembled pupperati at the first night.

Woodenhead Works - Invertigo - Broadway Theatre, Catford - April 2004
Reviewed by Matt Ball

At the heart of this Hitchcock-inspired piece is the death of a woman on September 11th and her lover's attempt to mould his subsequent partner into her doppelganger, a la Vertigo.
From the moment the titles roll, we are introduced to the main scenographic elements of the piece: video projection and three simple white movable screens. In this opening section the screens move with perfect choreography, and the integration of the live action with the projection is seamless.
The company also used a variety puppetry techniques, ranging from shadow puppets who fell from projected buildings and traversed the city, to a beautiful moment where a simple white plaster torso, face and arms are manipulated by ‘unseen’ assistants to create a living puppet, which seemed to haunt the protagonist's dreams.
The puppet work was charming, if occasionally overlong, but combined with the video lead to a feeling that the scenographic elements of the production had been allowed to dominate: the video work was great, but it sometimes overwhelmed, making us lose sight of the people who are at the heart of the story. The second half of the performance, with the introduction of the second lover, changed the tone and energy of the performance. This combined with a reduction in the amount of incidental video work made the piece eminently more engaging.
This was a truly ambitious project which took some risks and pushed at the technological boundaries of what's possible on a low budget; for this Woodenhead Works should be applauded.

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