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[ABOVE] Opera North & Leeds Met Studio Theatre - Resonance/ Faulty Optic at BAC Opera 2004


Leeds Met Studio Theatre and Opera North
BAC OperaFest, Virtually Opera: May 2004

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

As part of BAC’s Operafest, Faulty Optic presented a new short within the triple bill, Resonance, new music and performance commissioned by Opera North and Leeds’ Studio Theatre.
In Faulty Optic’s Licked, their trademark cronky puppetry, as superbly handled as we’ve come to expect, brought to life a nocturnal fantasy world where imagined monsters are all too real in a Victorian moral fable mining the same rich vein as Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter.
Video sequences expertly set the scene: an eery desolate woodland where endearing tribes of pegs are snared by a sinister hunchbacked figure with an overactive tongue and a taste for gingerbread babies. The score, grounded in tremulous xylophone and vibraphone, was broodingly atmospheric against the histrionic tones of Dominic Sale’s livelily rendered fairy tale songs (beautifully archly performed by Katharine Price) as our villain moves inexorably to larger prey.
The ingeniously customised ‘booth’ allowing for ‘split screen’ staging of a table-top household – two young, disobedient boys, their frustrated mother and her cat, in the heart of a forbidding forest – remained offcentre to the open space of the dark forest and its monstrous inhabitants. Here, the crosses into full scale bunraku-style figures and stop-start animation sequences played expertly with scale; the children remaining tabletop sized, the hungry witch always human height and the projected world exactly paralleling that staged, creating a fantastic extension to the live physical world. A comic, endearing, sinister and perfectly formed bite of puppet / animated / music / visual theatre.

Ragnarok - A Recipe for Nordic Meat
Festival Of Czech Professional Puppet Theatre, Plzen Czech Republic
June 2004
Reviewed by Edward Taylor
Puppetry is still active in the Czech Republic and varies from re-telling traditional folk stories to the avant-garde. This festival takes place in the Divadlo Alfa - a council-run puppet theatre with workshops, an in-house production team and at least three spaces for theatre shows. The audience isn't large but is impressively broad in its make-up.
TEArTR RADJO presented their show in the studio theatre - a familiar black box. It took as its theme the Norse myths - a time when human kind was more connected to the natural worlds, cosmic forces were at play and the elements had a particular significance. Bones, symbolic objects, masks, leather and puppets (both shadow and 3-D) were the materials used to create their theatre. Usually this sort of faux-primitivism really rubs up against my prejudices but the young company from Prague presented the show with such vigour and over-abundance of ideas that I was consistently intrigued and surprised. Without being slick the two performers showed their talents in many different disciplines - singing, movement, puppetry amongst others - and had energy in spades. As you entered the space, they were behind a linen cloth creating a rhythm to help stoke up the atmosphere. The lighting was all low-level, often just using fire. The simple wooden set/structure was used in different ways to create new spaces and theatrical possibilities - the sophistication with which they did this contrasted with the mythic primitive world they set out to explore.
Some bits worked - for instance a hunting scene between an archer and elk puppets on a table with a tree branch growing out of it. The table is tipped up towards you so you see the scene from above with the two warily stalking each other. And some bits didn't - a shadow play of fishes swimming around which is just too over-familiar - but they had so many ideas that another one quickly came along. Sometimes three came along at the same time!

June 2004

The Little Angel Theatre
Reviewed by Beccy Smith
An Indonesian shadow-horse swallowing the stars; a drunken old man sleeping on a turd; Jesus stretching his joints in a brief reprieve on the Cross. These are just a few of the colourful and bizarre images which animated this evening showcase of work from the London School of Puppetry. Ten interludes offered us tasters of a dazzling range of puppetry styles and tones of work, bound together in a revue format by the improvised shadow-segues of bulbous wire ballerinas performing in a psychedelic big top above the stage.
The Little Angel’s stage was a blank canvas for the variety of work on offer here and the whole had a warm ensemble feel, with puppeteers sweeping the stage after their performance as ballerinas bounced overhead, characters crossing between pieces and the showcase framed by star-turn performances from School leader Caroline Astell-Burt and Ronnie LeDrew. The loose format, however, didn’t belie the value of the work shown, as the evening showcased inventive new work and some excellent manipulation as well as some serious twists of imagination.
The revue opened with Star Horse, a consummate re-presentation of Indonesian shadow-storytelling portraying the quest of a mystical horse to capture the stars and his mistrustful union with a journeying warrior who, together, can take to the skies. This was the first of three excellent performances by Yuki Muramatsu whose ingenuity was further demonstrated in a simple, comic rendering of The Gingerbread Man using paper theatre, with its dual, rotating images to great comic and narrative effect as the dancing, cocksure gingerbread boy is foiled by his own over-confidence, and later in a piece of apron theatre whose inventive originality of design evoked gasps of pleasure from the audience. The pillowcase sheep were a particular favourite.
Elsewhere, in performances from Jo Munton and Suzy Kemp of Vagabondi Puppets, it was great to see new marionette work being tried out. Bill, the old drunk fighting gravity on his trip from pub to pavement was a well rendered comic study in weight and movement. In Brenda, the character of a retiring puppet at her own birthday party was delicately drawn with the cartoon-like lumpen aesthetic of the bathroom in which she locks herself beautifully creating her world on stage.
Danish puppeteer Ida Marie Tvalve demonstrated an absurd grasp of the form with a truculent and aging marionette goading an attentive waiter into cutting her strings once and for all and a Monty Python-esque series of vignettes on Calvary with some lovely narrative twists including a miniature, megalomaniac priest concealed within a hectoring rock-monster.
Suzy Kemp’s Kingdom of Gerald was the least classifiable performance of the evening with a bizarre and endearing world of miniature pink plastic beasties, their babies and pets who rattlingly colonise the skeletal belly of an enormous glittering, colourful fish to a sound track of Nina Simone.
In addition to the improvised shadows whose leaps and pirouettes glued the diverse performances and stagings together, we were also steered by showings from the experts, reminding us we were in safe hands. Thus Ronnie LeDrew’s camp Beaver-compere ushered us off for the interval in comic style, whilst the evening was rounded off by the melodramatic tale of jealousy and revenge by a thieving wife on unfaithful husband and the coquettish Barbie-maid. The macabre and grotesque tone of this final showing was a satisfying end to the evening and a had a lovely take on scaling (the tiny, powerless maid dwarfed by her master’s sweeping tongue, but both puppets overshadowed by the figure of the cunning wife, Caroline Astell-Burt herself, and her eagle-eyed magpie, engineering their comeuppance) and a tour-de-force of the varied possibilities of the one handed (or technically two!) performance.

A minor gripe was that there were moments when we were aware of the student context of the production, where strictly professional standards lapsed, but this is perhaps immaterial when the format for the evening was to expose new work resulting from ongoing training on the unique course offered by LSP. I would also query marketing the work as adult-oriented: many of the pieces were far more suited to a younger audience. However, this was an imaginative and thought-provoking evening’s work, where we were given glimpses of worlds that with luck we should have chance to explore more fully as these artists develop the ideas that have grown on their course. The Little Angel continues to expand its programme and broaden its remit under the Tiplady helm: the range of this showcase was an intriguing example of the various, and vigorous, possibilities offered by new contemporary puppetry.

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