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Reviews from Buxton Festival
July 2006
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Lempen Puppet Theatre
The am-A-zing Thing
Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

The trove of folktales collected by the Brothers Grimm long provided a staple for children’s puppeteers working in European traditions. They are familiar and intimate and attract parents (and sponsors) who believe that every generation of children need to be introduced to Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and their peers. The problem for the working puppeteer is how to satisfy a demand for fidelity to source (or some bowdlerised version of source) and also inject enough originality into the telling as not to put audiences to sleep. Lempen Puppet Theatre, in its novel interpretation of Brothers Grimm tales, does an admirable job towards solving this dilemma.

A solo puppeteer-storyteller, played by Daniel Lempen, arrives on a bleak shore strewn with crates, boxes, nets, rope, an old tarp, a lobster trap. With a flourish of his harmonica, he introduces himself as Peter Grimm, a descendent of the collector of tales Joseph Grimm, and self-confessed lover of boxes. Peter says that like his ancestor he above all values tales that are authentically told. He recounts an episode when his distinguished relative (represented amusingly by a buoy with wooden dowel attached) was unable to complete the tale of the Frog Prince in a way faithful to his folk source. A blue-haired sprite kept altering his words to add a kiss to the tale, which Grimm insists is a perversion of the original. For her crimes, the folklorist imprisons the sprite (a bunraku-style puppet) in a box and casts her adrift in a river so that she floats at sea for 200 years. 

His tale concluded, Peter notices a box with the half-legible words ‘Do not open’ printed on it. He opens it, of course, and sees inside the same sprite imprisoned by his ancestor, somewhat nattier for immersion in water. The sprite claims her hair is caught up in the box and requests Grimm’s aid in freeing her. Doing this means Grimm travelling into the universe of Grimm stories, where he unintentionally alters outcomes, freeing Red Riding Hood from the wolf’s stomach and getting kissed himself by the Frog Prince. He is also enticed by the sprite (whom he dubs Thing) to tell a new composite story, in which a version of Rapunzel has her hair cut by a prince-turned-hairdresser and the witch who imprisoned Rapunzel becoming the princess’ Auntie. Peter emerges from the story with the hairdresser’s scissors and frees Thing from the box. Thing is revealed to be a mermaid who returns to the sea.

The story is told with economy and attention to staging, set and use of objects. The solo performer, in a remarkable tour-de-force, sings and plays harmonica and banjo, provides all the puppet voices, manipulates a variety of glove and rod puppets and moves around the boxes that operate as his playboards. There are many ingenious transformations of properties, as when the fragments of the box imprisoning Thing become alternately Grandmother’s cottage in the Red Riding Hood segment and Rapunzel’s tower in Peter’s new tale. While the initial tellings of Red Riding Hood and the Frog Prince are devoid of contemporary cultural references, when Peter turns to create his own story the Prince experiments with becoming a chef ‘like Jamie Oliver’ and Auntie endearingly goes to ‘put the kettle on’ for Rapunzel. The audience reacts warmly to these references, chuckling and nodding. And Peter the storyteller emerges with new confidence in his abilities. This perhaps is the point of this engaging and entertaining production. Telling new stories that draw upon motifs of the past rather than mindlessly retelling bowdlerised ‘classics’ is empowering for both audience and performer, a stimulus for imagination and reconsideration of the past in the present.


Stop/Con Anima
Reviewed by Matthew Cohen

Sometimes smaller is better. We go through life bombarded with spectacles of military machines, urban development, mass media, violence and social change. It is easy to disregard the wonder and mystery of the diminutive and forget the childhood pleasure of infusing objects with life in the microcosm of solitary play. Mikropodium, the solo touring company of Hungarian puppeteer Andras Lenart, serves to reactivate interest in the small and awaken respect for the minutiae of movement one can see all around us, if only we know how to look.

Lenart presented a double-bill of wordless short works that showcased the puppeteer’s unique creations—eight inch figures controlled from behind by curved hand rods (modelled on wayang kulit), strings (à la marionettes) and a tube of the sort used in Vietnamese water puppets that facilitates subtle head movements. The first piece of the evening, Stop, is a medley of five acts—a mermaid, an accordion playing clown, a pair of dolphins, a ballerina and the return of the clown. The puppets move gracefully on and over a one-foot podium lit simply by two side lights. The mermaid dives into the waves and spins a ball. The clown plays his accordion as he prances about. The dolphins jump through a hoop and make love. The ballerina dances en Pointe and makes gravity-defying leaps. When the clown returns, the puppeteer’s hand descends to offer him his accordion. The clown shakes his head in refusal and instead picks up a parasol—which he uses to fly through the air—and a pole—to spin a plate on. As an encore the ballerina reappears, leaving the podium to dance gracefully on the palms and bodies of spectators. Each act is performed with exquisite attention to music, remarkable inflection of character, and evident joy in performing things only puppets can do in real time and space. With one exception (a magician’s hoop for a jumping dolphin) there is no trickery. The puppeteer waves his fingers over the podium before him like a magician, but Lenart is at all times visible in the background and his only magic is his remarkable control over his small figures.

The second piece is the allegorical Con Anima, which Lenart explains in a brief prologue is a musical term telling one to play with soul. A candle is lit before a two-foot white screen. Lenart brings the candle behind the screen to reveal the silhouette of a desolate landscape—a mound, a broken fence, a leafless tree. The puppeteer uses the candle to light two more candles, the production’s only illumination, and lifts the curtain to show a dune. A pointed-ear, furry-backed creature emerges from the sand. The capricious creature scampers about digging up various relics from the dune. An old skull, a piece of driftwood, a crystal. A miniature figure turns up, a tiny puppet-figure. The creature attempts to entertain his pint-sized charge, constructing a seesaw out of a log and plank. Digging around some more, the creature uncovers his charge’s mate. He seats them together, hangs an apple from a tree, anoints the couple with sand, hovers ominously behind the couple and then returns to the sand. The curtain comes down again on a silhouette of the newborn couple sitting beside the apple tree. How long can they wait before temptation gets the better of them?

After the play, Lenart invites curious audience members to see his stage up close and allows a few intrepid puppeteers to take a shot at animating his most simple figure, a dolphin with two control rods. Of course, nobody can do this with even a fraction of the Lenart’s grace. Lenart explains that he builds his figures for his own hands. And then one looks at these hands, and one sees Lenart’s thick fingers: fleshy, powerful fingers one would expect to find on a butcher, fingers seemingly incapable of refinement and grace. One’s admiration redoubles. We leave with certainty that there is magic in the world and a hidden desire to become small ourselves, to scale ourselves down to the wonders activated by the world of Mikropodium.

On the Other Hand
One Henry, Six Wives and A Dog called Stanley
Buxton Opera House
Reviewed by Peter Charlton

I heard that the editor thinks I won’t be able to review this show objectively. Oh She of little faith! To be fair, both members of this company are friends of mine and, as Festival Director, I was partly responsible for them being there. But when you book shows for a festival, you don’t just book shows you know you’ll like and you often book ones you haven’t seen! (Editor’s note: oh all right then, review it… critical distance is so last year)

But on with the show.  Buxton Opera House is not only one of the UK’s most beautiful theatres, a piece of matchless Matcham magic, it is also quite big – a 900-seater. That can be daunting for puppet companies more used to 250-seater arts venues. The wide proscenium and steep stage rake can also present problems. So I had a few qualms as I took my seat for this performance. Ken Haines ambled on in the persona of a museum assistant delivering props for the visiting lecturer who had been delayed; he was to talk to us about the life of Henry VIII.

Amongst the props is a hat which once belonged to Will, the King’s jester. Ken tries it on and finds that it is a magic hat for it instantly summons King Henry VIII himself, played by John Field. My qualms begin to subside; here is an actor who can fill this theatre. I’m not merely commenting on John’s physical size, though no anorexic is he. He has on-stage presence and vocal presence too. No-one will sleep whilst he’s on. Henry VIII, assisted by young Ken and an engaging fluffy hand-puppet dog called Stanley, begins to tell his story. And my qualms return. We are in the first week of school summer holidays and we are being given a history lesson! Many of our young audience thought they’d left this behind them when the school gates closed.  Henry explains what happened at the Battle of Bosworth Field, which Ken illustrates with a small puppet stage and a pair of glove puppets – and my qualms subside again. If history lessons had been like this, I’d have learnt a bit more when I was at school. Having grabbed our attention and got us chuckling, On the Other Hand keep us hooked – sometimes through laughter but sometimes by stirring other emotions. 

There are tender moments, there are scary moments, there are very sad moments. Henry’s line of Queens, Cardinal Woolsey and the unfortunate Cromwell are depicted by rather beautiful table-top puppets, with their voices provided by Ken Haines. It is the story of Henry VIII, it is historically accurate and schools should be queuing up to book it if the Tudors are still in the curriculum. But it also works as a piece of entertaining puppet theatre – there can be no better clue from a young audience than that very few went to the loo during the show. I certainly wouldn’t have dared – one look from Henry VIII would have been enough to keep me seated.

The Snow Queen
Clive Chandler and His Puppets
Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

English glove puppet booth shows have two possibilities. They can either ignore traditions and expectations of Punch and Judy, or harness its strengths to new materials and ideas. The former runs the risk of technical naivety, the latter creates anxieties of influence from the outrageous strength of England’s national puppet.

The Snow Queen, as performed by Clive Chandler, one of England’s top Punch professors, departs from the episodic dramaturgy of Punch, but capitalizes on Chandler’s Punch-honed skills. Chandler begins with an audience-participation warm-up of spinning plates and juggling, introducing himself as Clive and encouraging applause in the tried and tested way of the street performer. Throughout, the puppets turn, move, nod and gesture in a way readily familiar from Punch. We are in Clive’s hands and while the story might not be familiar we trust him, we are comfortable to go along with him for the ride, wherever it will take us.

The ride takes us to Scandinavia, where we meet a boy and a girl named Kai and Gerde who are out gathering wood for their grandmother. Kai is kidnapped by the dreaded Snow Queen and turned into an unseeing ice zombie. Gerde rescues her brother from the Queen’s palace in the Paris of the North, meeting along the way a white wolf who would rather find work as a clown than work for the Queen, a duplicitous penguin and a grey-haired Prince. Gerde not only unfreezes her brother by having the audience blow hot air on him, she also turns the Snow Queen’s own magic against her and transforms her into blue-green liquid in a fizzy drink bottle. The puppets ad-lib comments and the puppeteer is not hesitant to address individual audience members (including mothers of crying babies) through whatever puppet is at hand. The glove puppets are roughly made, no music is used during the show, props and sets are minimal and the fun is due largely to the play of accents—including a penguin with a French accent worthy of Monty Python.

This is a show without pretensions, simple, effective and expressive, emblematized by the booth—painted as pine wood with a little mouse hole at its base. There is a past as well as a future for Punch.


Abalino Dance Theatre

Bobroshkov's Dream
The Space, London
July 2006

Reviewed by John Ellingsworth

The puppets were costumes the performers wore, and half the time it would take several seconds to realise where the human being fit in. Two live scenes were divided by a film; the film showed a couple of small puppets, a man in a formal suit and a woman in a wedding dress, leaning against each other, clasped to each other, looking not a little drunk, hauling each other around the dance floor. Maybe I am slow, or just a puppet-dunce, but it took me at least three-quarters of the film to realise these two half-size puppets were manipulated by one full-size human bent at the waist. This is praise, I think.

In the other scenes, puppets were alive with the performers, in a kind of symbiosis. One old man was simultaneously weighed down and held up by three young girls, and did a brilliant tottery walk with them, demanding and refusing their help. There was no discernible linear narrative in the play, only a dreamy pulse and series of metamorphoses that linked characters. It had a strong sense of place, even though the stage was barely adorned: somewhere rural and peaceful, this effect created in part by the church-space of The Space and in part by the music. I wouldn’t want to try and classify the soundtrack (except though I did recognise some Nick Drake), but it was accordion-rich and melodic and a little wistful and all in all a good match for what was happening on stage. A brief burst of acceleration, drumming, came only two times: once when the supported old man suddenly rose out of his shaky steps, his body held aloft and parallel to the floor, in flight; the other when a weary traveller’s body detached from his head and danced frenetically, silhouetted in a tent. Both these examples, the two endings to the two live scenes – both moving actings-out of the spirit escaping the flesh – left me with the impression that Abalino’s theatre is kind, human.

Funny, always ingenious; exactly the kind of hybrid which should be used as bait for larger audiences. I want quite nakedly to say you should go and see them any chance that you get.

Duda Paiva
Hamlet Cannot Sleep
Reuring Festival, Purmerend, Holland
July 2006
Reviewed by Edward Taylor

This 15 minute long combination of dance and puppetry was performed in Purmerend’s town hall as part of a theatrical guided tour. You were ushered into a council meeting room with paintings of town officials on the wall and an intense looking man crouching next to a folded up bed on the stage. When everyone was seated the performance started. The opening choreographed moves suggested that state of being between sleep and sleeplessness. The man’s limbs didn’t behave as they should and there was a mood of sweaty anxiety hanging over his fluid and restless movements. The bed functioned as a kind of gymnastic device to crawl over, hang from and push against. Given the comparative informality of the performance situation it was a remarkably concentrated piece of work.

From out of the black bed–sheets covering the mattress he produced a toothless puppet head of an old woman dressed in a long black dress. With her white waxy skin and one large gimlet eye she both repulsed and attracted him. She disappeared and was replaced by a skeleton. As with the old woman, the puppet was in fact just a head and an arm but his manipulation was so skilful that you saw the rest of the body. The skeleton seemed to be fighting for control over the man’s body. At times it seemed to delight in ownership of its new fleshy feet and at other times it was struggling to get the upper hand. This relationship was extremely well played out and effectively lodged itself in your mind.

A phone rings – we hear a voice on the answer-phone leaving a despairing message and the performance ends hanging in mid-air. It wasn’t a disappointing end but I wonder if the piece (still in its early stages) will seek to resolve itself further as it develops.

Waiting for Gavo
Hackney Empire, London
July 2006
Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Some shows are better in the describing than in the viewing, yielding good sound bites but little pleasure in performance. Waiting for Gavo is a spoof of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot by sculptor and conceptual artist Gavin Turk and his partner Deborah Curtis. Vladimir and Estragon are represented by puppets of Joseph Beuys and Marcel Duchamp, who are waiting in the wilderness for a mysterious ‘Gavo.’ The monotony of their wait is twice interrupted by the Lucky and Pozo surrogates, represented by an Andy Warhol caricature and a character named ‘Scratchie,’ who may or may not be the art collector Charles Saatchi. The four puppets are operated individually bunraku-style by hooded amateur operators, with puppet feet and hips joined to operator feet and hips. The dialogue, which roughly plays out the Beckett play with reference to modern art, is pre-recorded in parodies of French, German, American and English accents. Movement and blocking are perfunctory.

Turk is a sculptor and conceptual artist championed by Saatchi in the 1990s as one of the Young British Artists. A well known series of monocolour paintings shows the artist posing as other artists and celebrities—Beuys (in his trademark fedora), Warhol (in fright wig), Elvis (replete with sideburns), Che Guevara (with beret). Some find his work irreverent and comical, others dismiss him as facile. This production was definitely on the facile side. The production was presented deadpan. There were occasionally moments of wit, as when Joseph offers Marcel a choice between an Anthony Caro sculpture or Turner painting (carrot or turnip in the original), or when Andy mounts a Brillo soapbox to deliver his monologue on being ‘deeply superficial.’ Scratchi has his comic moments in the first act when he snidely tells Joseph and Marcel that he would never ‘associate with artists like you unless you made me a great bit of money’ and in the second when Scratchi despairs, ‘I’m blind! I used to have taste, but now I’m blind!’ Some of the jokes fall flat as a pancake, as when Joseph and Marcel contemplate hanging themselves as ‘it was good enough for Rothko.’ I liked the ending, when the operators turned their backs on the audience and the puppets mime behind-the-curtain hugs and kisses. But there were few real laughs, and the possibility of expressing joyful amateurism was effaced by the hoods, canned dialogue and a foreboding electro-acoustic zither score.

Samuel Beckett’s plays can potentially make for good puppet theatre: witness Barry Smith’s Act Without Words I, authorised by Beckett as a puppet film. Beckett’s fondness for music hall routines, emphasis on singular gestures, iconic disabled characters confined by ropes and urns, obsessive use of reductio ad abdurdum in action and speech, all play to the strengths of puppets for non-naturalistic representation. Turk’s Beckettian roast has high pretensions. One readily sees the continuity with Turk’s other plastic work in his sending-up of modern art. All the puppets are cast from a mould of Gavin’s own head, and Turk is one of the uncredited puppet operators. But overall this is a sterile production, lacking both theatrical magic and existential despair. Once the production is over, the puppets will without doubt command a high price and short video extracts will surface in documentaries celebrating Turk’s myriad talents. But sitting in the audience I felt like I was listening to a shaggy dog story, a discomfort shared acutely by the handful of children in the audience (one girl in the front row played with a Tamagotchi toy during the second act.) I fell to reflect on the lonely Beckettian tree carved from wood on the puppet stage. I kept an eye on the tree during the play, but no leaf sprouted from it.

Robert Lopez/Jeff Marx
Avenue Q

Noel Coward Theatre, London
August 2006

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

Buying into the great tradition of shows like the Simpsons and South Park, which customise a child-focussed format to adult material, Avenue Q is a (largely successful) theatrical adaptation of a televisual form.

The storyline is a familiar one, in keeping with the mainstream musical/music theatre format:  Princeton, our classical-contemporary antihero, a college graduate, is desperate to find his purpose so as to make sense of his life. The ironic reversal of our childish expectations of adulthood matches form to content satisfyingly – and although the script never quite attains the bite and vision of a Groenig, or even Parker and Stone, it hits the mark often enough with apt and amusing commentary in songs such as The Internet’s for Porn, Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, and What Do You Do with a BA in English?

There are some imaginative takes on the mock child-centred material: the Bad Idea Bears are a wonderful reinvention of educational anthropomorphism; the patronising tones of TV-style animated sequences are used to great comic effect; and knowing parodic references to the 70s source material pepper the script (not least the unrequited love of accountant Rod for housemate Nicky, with its overtones of Bert and Ernie, and Trekkie Monster’s obvious allusion to a certain biscuit-, rather than porn-, loving fiend.

There are aspects to criticise – the humour is broad and the character development often predictable from the off.  But much can be put down to the ‘musical factor’: the show’s creators recognise in the programme notes that their primary obstacle in writing was to get people over the ‘hurdle of its being a musical… an anachronistic form’. Their solution was to use puppetry, and they use it very well – this almost entirely new English cast, none from a puppeteering background, handle the Henson inspired puppets excellently putting not a foot wrong in terms of characterisation, rhythm and focus. The intriguing premise of puppeteer/performers who sing and play out to the audience alongside their characters works unexpectedly well, never detracting from our engagement with the puppets and in fact giving an edge to the dynamic on stage.

This is a popular entertainment which is enjoyable and which showcases the engaging effect of good quality puppetry on a West End stage, which can be No Bad Thing. Although the puppetry is effectively there entirely for parodic value, it is, of course, the puppets who steal the show.

See also our special feature on puppetry shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2006

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