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Reviews from the
London International Mime Festival 2007

Philippe Genty

Compagnie Philippe Genty
La Fin des Terres (Land’s End)
Queen Elizabeth Hall/LIMF
January 2007

Reviewed by Eleanor Margolies

The trap doors and sliding screens, the objects that float through the air unaided, recall Victorian magic tricks. But, as Philippe Genty says, “reality imitates illusion”. The illusions of earlier eras have materialised in our own. Tricks involving transportation – a person appearing in two places at once, a letter delivered instantaneously – have become everyday facts. The human-animal hybrids of mythology, faked by taxidermists in the past, are now debated in the field of embryonic stem cell research. Though the men wear trilbies and trenchcoats, La Fin des Terres takes place in our time, in our nightmares.

There are stunning moments of illusion and animation: envelope-headed people who unfold their own faces; an ever-larger sheet of paper that glues itself to the performers; a scene straight out of Robert Crumb in which the grotesque thighs of a giant baby doll puppet are transformed into a castrating pair of scissors. The lighting is expressive: at one point, the seven dancers’ bodies are reduced to black silhouettes against a luminous sunset, only for these silhouettes to be picked up and carried away – mere cardboard cutouts.

However, the comic or emotional potential of many scenes is deliberately truncated. A scene that promises clowning – heads popping out of paper cylinders behind another performer’s back – is cut short once the audience has produced a first burst of laughter. The dance is energetic but limited in interest; the music efficient but rarely affecting. Although the performance suggests that technological toys – emails, street signs, boxes that slide across the floor automatically – contribute to social alienation, for much of the performance they seem to have the directors in their grip.

When illusion and music are used to tell stories, the effect is powerful. A woman watches as a live man’s head emerges from a hole in the floor, followed by pale, greenish tentacles. In one rapid leap – and a substitution the eye can’t follow – a monstrous man-insect has perched on the woman’s body, a long-legged giant puppet. A dance of seduction and predation ends with the woman entirely cocooned in clear plastic.

Plastic, the ubiquitous material of our age, has never before been given such a starring role. A semi-transparent plastic bag, the thin filmy sort that supermarkets provide for fruit and vegetables, squeezes through a small gap and slowly inflates to fill the whole stage. The bubble floats into the sky, as if weightless, then threatens to engulf a performer’s body, like lava. It spreads horizontally, a pulsing, fleshy cushion. The rustling – oceanic, white noise or nerve-jangling – is constant. Inside this amniotic sac or glowing cell, there is a woman. Her hand appears when pressed against the membrane, and disappears when she steps back. A man is outside; they try to make contact. Finally, the plastic collapses to the floor, becoming a pearly landscape, a frozen sea. The performers turn their backs on us and walk away through waves breaking on a shore at the end of the world.

Buchinger’s Boot Marionettes
Vestibular Folds
January 2007

Reviewed by Penny Francis

Chaotic, cacophonous, impenetrable – these are only some of the adjectives that spring to mind when experiencing and remembering this unique performance. At the time I was left wrung out, not knowing whether to hail the show as a work of genius or absolute rubbish, the culmination or the cul-de-sac of the theatre of puppets and objects. Think of Faulty Optic and multiply the accumulation of detritus and undecipherable action to the nth degree and you’ll be somewhere near it. My companion adored it – the density of images, the spatial invention, the sheer nonsense of it all resonated with her, but left me puzzled and deafened. I have never seen a stage more filled with stuff, sometimes achieving images of excitement and beauty, sometimes resembling nothing so much as a crazy jumble sale. I could detect neither storyline nor meaning, and the handout at the door only compounded the obfuscation, viz.; “In the dried, cracked ferruginous landscape there lives a population of dreaming Quacks and vampires who would do better to wake up. Our tragic hero is a boxing sweet-potato named Juba Greencorn…”

Buchinger’s Boot Marionettes is a six-person group which includes English and Spanish players and is currently based in France. This was Lewis Carroll meets Forkbeard Fantasy meets Monty Python meets Faulty Optic meets total anarchy. For me, it was a huge if intriguing joke.

2 men wearing chimp masks, 1 is pointingSteven Whinnery Co
Lying with the Animals
January 2007

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

This is a bold performance, uncompromising yet whimsical. Steven Whinnery Co. re-imagine the world askance using beautiful, lifelike animal masks to evoke a world where the rules of the surreally animalistic and recognisably human merge. We laugh because we can identify with the cows, and gorillas and performing dogs, but the recognition isn’t of the mundanely human but of the rather less obvious aspects – the flamboyance of performing your own tricks, the tenderness of searching for a lost pet (even whilst both pet and owner are themselves animals).

The Larson comparison comes into play when we see familiar situations reflected by the masked vision – the experience of waiting at an airport, for example, exposed through archetypes. However, this comparison (established in the company’s PR) feels reductive. The experience of sharing such scenarios played out live, the invention of those scenes which start to create a new world rather than simply commenting on our own, goes beyond bringing someone else’s vision to life. Whinnery’s beautiful masks and the nuanced physical control of the actors offer a highly theatrical experience, complemented (on the most part) by a low-tech production, its scenography generated through mask and effective sound design (Mercedes Maresca).

The show was topped off by a somewhat unrelated but show-stopping piece of tabletop puppetry which fluttered playfully between a tale of romance and suicide as two doll-like figures clambered over and flirted with their human controllers. It was exquisitely timed and manipulated, and gestured finally toward a company with a charmingly idiosyncratic vision all their own.

a bald child like creature looks at some giant scissorsFaulty Optic
January 2007

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Soiled, a revival of a 2003 production, played to sold-out houses at the 2007 edition of LIMF. It is an immaculately constructed and executed tour-de-force of tabletop puppetry, incorporating bunraku-style puppets, automata, found objects, film and live video feed. Puppeteers Gavin Glover and Liz Walker, who have been trading for the last 20 years under the company name Faulty Optic, began their careers as makers of visual theatre as Little Angel marionettists. Their background in children’s puppet theatre shows in this piece. Mermaids, tweety-birds, ballerinas and angels are the stuff of children’s theatre, but in the very adult hands of Faulty Optic these figures of fancy assume a dark significance in a fragmented and largely wordless narrative dealing with mental and physical decay, chronic nostalgia and intimations of self-harm.

The central character, a nameless blue-skinned and bald man, is haunted by a past relation with a mermaid that ended with his lover being mysteriously impaled by a pair of scissors (shown in a film). Such is his dismay that the man allows his home to decay into a hovel, comforted only by a hyperactive tweety-bird that emerges from its cage occasionally to perform antics such as tightrope walking. A well-meaning neighbour, an elderly bald man with glasses, attempts to spruce up the place with a new rug, but the depressed blue-skinned man will have none of it and his depression deepens. He beats the bird, which flies away from his life. He constructs a bed in his house’s rafters and, in a sequence which might or might not be a delusion, he boxes with a headless ballerina and is haunted by angels. The man descends into the subterranean depths beneath his home and (through the medium of live video feed) we see his travels through a miniature necropolis of rusted metal, soil and human remains. A towering and ominous figure vomits dirt on him. Yet the man survives his travels through the underworld and returns to his dreary abode to face another day.

All aspects of the production are flawless. The coordination of the two puppeteers is seamless; the electronic soundscape and music perfectly timed to the action; lighting, set and puppets operate at the perfect scale for the action depicted. The work is disturbing, challenging, puzzling and ultimately inspiring, for Faulty Optic provide an object lesson in how a theatrical aesthetic can deepen and mature through uncompromising dedication to craft, partnership and worldview.

Other Reviews

repunzelKneehigh Theatre
BAC, London
January 2007

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

Kneehigh are on a mission: their task is to rid the world of the ‘Barbie-fication’ of fairy tales. To this end, they have brought us enterprising reworkings of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, The Red Shoes and other well-loved tales, restoring the blood and guts to these stories of quests for (female) emancipation and self-determination.

For their midwinter show, commissioned by BAC, Kneehigh tackled the prototype feminist tale of Rapunzel – locked in a tower at the onset of adolescence to keep her ‘safe’. Safe from what, though? The answer of course is safe from herself and her own emerging sexuality, which is to be suppressed, and safe from men, who can’t be trusted not to act on their base desires. In the light of recent debates on veiling women and the like, it’s a story that carries a refreshing no-ifs-and-buts message of female sexual, social and personal liberty as our heroine shakes off the shackles and goes off into the world to find her man and bring him back home (to bed).

Kneehigh tell their tale using a trademark mix of commedia-style storytelling, klezmer-inspired music, rambunctious clown-theatre, pantomime, aerial skills, and puppetry/object theatre. It’s presented on two wooden circus-ring type stages, with an aerial rig between and above. A coarse, thick rope (more corde brute than corde lisse) becomes the legendary hair, climbed up to reach Rapunzel, and an aerial ‘cradle’ is used both to represent the oppressive tower and as the site for the acting out of the sexual tryst that is our heroine’s liberation. The aerial-duet-as-metaphor-for-sex trick seemed old and tired when the company used it in last year’s production of Nights at the Circus: here, it works well and the love scenes between Rapunzel (Edith Tanker) and her blinded prince (Pieter Lawman) are refreshingly earthy and vibrant.

The very able cast of seven also includes Kneehigh founder Mike Shepherd, back in a frock as the witchy Mother Gothel, and the magnificent Paul Hunter (from Told By An Idiot) in a number of roles, which he steps in and out of in true pantomime spirit (at one point declaring that his character is dead, so he may as well go to the bar). There’s a number of toy sheep, one live rabbit, and a wonderful puppet baby, who starts the show lying abandoned on the circular stage, twitching and whimpering in a terrifyingly realistic way. As is often the case with puppetry, the fact that we can see the manipulators below the wooden stage operating the baby Rapunzel adds to (rather than subtracts from) the magic of the theatrical effect.

Kneehigh are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a puppet theatre company – but they are a company who choose to use puppetry and integrate it well into their productions, one of many skills in their theatrical repertoire. That, I feel, is a good thing – long may their tales be tall, and long may they tell them so tellingly.

David Farr
Lyric Hammersmith
February/March 2007

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

The Ramayana has provided one of South and Southeast Asia’s major sources for drama, storytelling and puppetry for at least 2000 years. Unlike the Mahabharata, the other great epic of the region, the core story is a linear narrative that can be summarised relatively easily. Prince Rama is forced to renounce his claim to the throne of Ayodhya and is exiled to the forest for fourteen years, together with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana. Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demonic king of Lanka, but with the assistance of an army of monkeys he is able to rescue his wife and slay Ravana. Sita is subjected to a trial of fire to prove that her virtue remained untarnished during her captivity. She passes the test and the couple are happily reunited.

David Farr’s production of the Ramayana re-enacts this core story with only occasional elisions and omissions, in a tone that is suitably faithful (if not reverential) to his source, with some moments of comedy and philosophising thrown in. Great economy of staging allows the vast armies of the original to be portrayed by a cast of seven on a single set of bamboo climbing poles. Paul Sharma shines as Rama, Stephen Ventura gives a hilarious panto dame rendition of Ravana’s sister Surpanakha, while Richard Simons gives a nuanced performance as Hanuman, chief of Rama’s monkey army. This is a family show which makes occasional gestures towards Shakespearean rhetoric but is basically a rollicking adventure story enacted in a broad theatrical style.

The puppets created by Blind Summit are billed prominently in Ramayana advertisements, but feature only in passing in the production. A pair of puppet birds (manipulated on long poles) deliver a garland to Sita; the wings of Jatayu, king of birds, are puppet-like in their manipulation; Ravana’s ten heads appear at three moments, manipulated by cast members; little monkey heads sprout up when Hanuman makes his great leap across the ocean to Lanka. These effects are all credible, though not spectacular. It is likely that in past years puppetry would not have been mentioned in publicity, but times are good for theatrical puppetry, and after the ENO production of Madam Butterfly it seems that Blind Summit can do no wrong. Long may this puppet-positive mood prevail.

Lunar Sea
Peacock Theatre, London
November 2006

Reviewed by Penny Francis

Woodrow F. Dick the Third is the hero of this show. He is the Lighting Supervisor alongside Paolo Saccinto, the Technical Director, and their skills make this Black Light production a memorable one. Remember the eye-watering banality of the later so-called Black Theatre of Prague offerings after it had split into several companies with the same name? Well Momix has returned Black Theatre to its magic roots and are to be patted on the back.

The show at the Peacock had little true puppetry, but the whole evening was puppetesque in its depictions of featureless creatures in space doing impossible things with their bodies in the air and on the ground. I managed to work out the trick – how it was done – in the middle of the first half, found it tremendously clever, and waited to be bored by the repetition of the illusion in the second half. I was pleasantly surprised – even thrilled – at the invention of a number of items that were not repetitive at all. In the end there were effects I couldn’t work out and didn’t want to.

The basic ingredients were ten brilliant dancer-acrobats whose physical skills and strength were simply phenomenal. In the ultra-violet lighting and, crucially, with the aid of giant projected pictures covering the stage, the performers seemed not to be human: spirit more than flesh. There was a lot of loud (and not very good) music and certain whiffs of the Cirque du Soleil. But the director Moses Pendleton with his associate Cynthia Quinn had worked out a series of numbers that took your breath away, and when the puppetry came it added both to the ghostly atmosphere and the magic.

The company is touring out of Connecticut, USA. If it comes your way, do see it.

siloutted figure and puppet

The School of Dramatic Art/ Dmitry Krymov
Sir Vantes Donky Khot
& Not a Fairy Tale
FeEast – Festival of Central and Eastern European Arts
Riverside Studios, London
November 2006

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Of all forms of puppetry, humanettes have been least exploited in contemporary puppetry. A quick Google shows that humanettes make occasional appearances in works by Theodora Skipitares and the Norwich Puppet Theatre, and regularly feature as puppet variety acts —including a a humanette version of a Balinese baris warrior dance by a California puppet company. But generally the spectacle of a human head sticking out of a puppet body is used for caricature and cheap laughs rather than a meaningful exploration of ideas or character. Humanettes are generally considered to be relics of the age of music hall and variety theatre; a high-point of humanette history is the novelty number ‘Triplets’ from the MGM musical The Band Wagon (1953).

The experimental theatre lab of Moscow’s School of Dramatic Art, under the direction of Dmitry Krymov, which made its first appearance in London as part of the FeEast festival in November, showed that this neglect of the humanette is unjustified, and that this puppet form can be a superb vehicle for allegory, fantasy and the dramatisation of otherness. Nearly all of Krymov’s performers are scenography students, making for visually-striking work devoid of pretence, but rich in imagination.

Not a Fairy Tale, the first work created by the lab, is a series of inter-locking Russian folk tales acted out by humanettes of various sorts and kinds. A young bride saws off her own leg after her husband is drafted into the army. The leg magically takes flight and reappears in many of the story fragments that follow. A couple of grotesques grind up every living thing that comes their way — a fly, a mouse, a finger. Eyes explode, human eggs and a frog prince are fried up by a hag, a man shoots a dog (animated by his own leg) and ends up bloodying his own foot. At the end, we see the legless war bride again, pushing a pram in the snow. Her leg flies into her pram, and thus the war bride is re-membered and made whole.

Sir Vantes Donky Khot is a meditation on difference. A giant (formed by two actors, one on top of another) with glasses and a bundle of books, dressed in dark colours, enters a world of gaily-dressed munchkins (humanettes, formed by performers walking on their knees and dressed in doll-sized costumes). The giant is savagely attacked and killed, and its body undergoes an autopsy in a haunting shadow puppet sequence. A toilet is painted on cardboard and the books are torn to shreds and flushed away. The giant comes to life again, however, or rather its double does — a flying image cut from pieces of card laid over the corpse and animated by half a dozen long rods. The giant’s spirit-double swirls through the air, buffeted by the wind. The munchkins dance and hold a wake: a slideshow in which the giant appears, Zelig-like, in the company of the famous. Glasses emerge and the munchkins take on the personality of the slain giant, re-membering him through costume.

The attitude throughout is one of loving concentration on the task at hand, rather than the impersonation of character. Effects are produced without the bravura of the magician or the egotism of the actor, but with the efficiency of the stage hand. [Exacto] ??? knives are flourished, paints are mixed and applied with precision, materials are manipulated, makeup applied, costumes precisely fitted. It is as if the audience is seated backstage at a stage show: nothing is hidden, all is in process, erected and taken down in full view of the audience. The director appears onstage before the show, and after the show is over the excited cries of the performers can be heard from the wings. This is rough puppet theatre, with little spoken dialogue or text, that is as captivating to adults as it is to children. A rare delight.

Independent Opera
Lillian Baylis Theatre at Sadler’s Wells, London
November 2006

Reviewed by Penny Francis

The stylisation of opera suits puppetry well, and there have been several successful collaborations between the two art forms in the last year or so. The opportunity to see the shadow figures of Michael Fowkes and Chiara Ambrosio in the production by Independent Opera of Handel’s glorious Orlando was therefore not to be missed. It took place in the little Lilian Baylis theatre next door to Sadler’s Wells, but the piece was so cleverly staged it’s hard to imagine it in the hugeness of Covent Garden and suchlike theatres.

The set was an elevated elliptical walkway wide enough to take the five singers as long as they were never more than two abreast. At floor level in the middle of the circle sat the fifteen-strong orchestra conducted from the harpsichord. Musically it was a joy: the handsome heroes were both counter-tenors (Handel would have had women singing the parts), there was a baritone, a soprano, two dancers (fortunately very small and slim) and a stunning mezzo, Joana Seara, who deserves world fame. All were young and most starting out on their professional career.

Behind the players and the orchestra was a wide screen for occasional large-scale shadow puppet play. The shadows illustrated and enhanced the power of the magic elements of the Orlando legend (our man from the Belgian and Sicilian Saracen vs. Crusader puppet plays, please note): a woman, a dragon, the Underworld, a fantastic predatory bird. These shadows’ clever transformations were expertly manipulated, although for me the aesthetic of the black modernist shapes was at odds with the naturalism and pretty colours of the costume and props design. One prop was a beautiful giant bird referred to as a nightingale; it amused the audience by the musical dipping of its head and tail. The occasion will stay in the mind and send me to anything else Independent Opera does.

Mr Sole Abode
Lyric Hammersmith
February/March 2007

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

I have tried to picture more than once what sort of flesh-and-blood creatures might inhabit the patchwork universe of Faulty Optic Gavin Glover and Liz Walker’s sets of recycled refuse were the puppets to be replaced by people and the sets blown up to life-size. With Leo Kay’s solo show, Mr Sole Abode, directed by Benji Reid with set design by Faulty Optic’s Gavin Glover, I got my chance to find out.

Mr Sole Abode tells the story of a ragged street vendor with illusions of grandeur named Sole who lives in a refrigerator and tells stories of gourmet cuisine and architectural projects on a global scale. As the action unfolds, we learn more about Sole’s past: a friendless childhood, an abusive mother, a serious model-making hobby and a complete immersion in a world of fantasy. The grand building projects Sole outlines to the audience turn out to be edifices constructed from discarded matches and a skyscape of carved wood on the underside of a table he schleps on his back. Sole dreams of air, the open space of the Millennium Dome and the Sydney Opera House, and a social housing project to help the landless peasants of Brazil, but lives in a cramped space and suffers from back problems. He describes mouth-watering meat and foul dishes, but eats a piece of toast he heats with a cigarette lighter.

The objects on display and the refrigerator-domicile are brilliant constructions. A mirror pops out from the side for occasional hygienic checks. A chandelier descends from the refrigerator’s roof. Bits and pieces of a solitary existence emerge from this cramped world within a recycled kitchen appliance – food, a toothbrush, a teach-yourself Portuguese book, a plastic bag of refuse, a chair, safety goggles. Sole possesses a puppet-like physicality. His body is grotesque – he walks with a hunch and a twisted foot – but when he emerges from his refrigerator in his sleep he is capable of the most extraordinary physical feats. His speech is lyrical, but shot-through with tic-like mannerisms.

This subtly evocative and compact piece of physical theatre is a real tour-de-force that engages you in one man’s social plight and the power of imagination.

long nose puppetsLong Nose Puppets
Shoe Baby
Komedia, Brighton
December 2006

There’s always something a little uncomfortable about going alone to a morning children’s show – parents and carers give you odd sideways glances for a start, plus there’s the danger of sitting on half-chewed Froggie bars – and as I walked into the bubble and squeak of the toddler-filled auditorium for Komedia’s Christmas show, I wondered if I should perhaps make my excuses and nip off to Carluccio’s for brunch instead. But the set (a lovely patchworky puppet-theatre booth) looked interesting, so I stayed. Within moments of the start, I knew I’dmade the right decision.

With resonances of the nursery rhyme favourite The Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, and Raymond Briggs’ wonderful tale of The Elephant and the Bad Baby, the story starts: “There once was a baby who hid in a shoe and had learnt how to say, 'How do you do?’’”. The auditorium fell silent with expectation, and the audience (young and – well, me) spent the next forty minutes or so entranced as we were taken on adventures over land and sea in the company of the Shoe Baby, a lost soul in search of his family. Everything onstage looked gloriously tactile – this borne out at the end when we were invited to meet the puppets, and whilst fiddling with a particularly nice wooden toggle, I learned that the ragbag creatures made from felt, velvet, buttons and bows had been lovingly crafted from the old curtains and frocks in the family attic. I learned also that not only had [her] who? Granny’s dresses been commandeered to make the puppets, but that the original story book was written by the mother of one of the puppeteer-makers, so this really is a family business.

Everything about the production is just as it should be: set, puppets and props made with care and attention to detail; the animation simple but well executed; the story told using a poetic text which relies on rhythm and repetition building in a pleasing way; the music gentle and lyrical but with texture and depth, not kiddie-fodder (composed by Tom Gray of Mercury Prize winning indie band Gomez – another unexpected surprise).

The action mostly takes place in the safe confines of the booth, but there’s a moment of well-planned theatrical surprise at the end when the Shoe Baby’s parents eventually show up: two real live human beings in whole-head masks who of course look like giants in the puppet landscape. This is a lovely touch: the scale instantly shifts, and the previously independent and freewheeling (but lonely) Shoe Baby, who’d taken centre stage, suddenly becomes a tiny and dependent creature, snuggled in his mother’s arms, and the shoe is no longer a boat or a car, just a shoe on his father’s foot. Home, safe and sound.

The Komedia has established itself as a key venue for puppetry, with programmer/co-director Marina Kobler championing the best of UK and overseas puppetry over many years (for example, in her constant support of Norwich, DNA, Garlic et all and in bringing Czech company Drak to Komedia a few years back). Shoe Baby has been a runaway success at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere and has toured extensively throughout 2006, and it was great to see it programmed for the midwinter run at Komedia in Long Nose Puppets’ home town of Brighton, before it launches itself again into the big wide world for its spring 2007 tour.

Soho Theatre Productions
That Pesky Rat
Soho Theatre, London
December 2006.

Reviewed by Tom Wilson

Ah, puppet musicals. Hot on the heals of The Lion King and Avenue Q comes That Pesky Rat, Soho Theatre’s offering that you can take the youngest of the family to without fear of porn-crazed monsters, or them needing a wee before the interval.

Adapted from Lauren Child’s book by Jonathan Lloyd, That Pesky Rat, this eponymous tale follows our hero in his search for an owner and a proper name. On the way we meet his various friends and learn of their experiences with their owners. Concocted from animal and national stereotypes this is all good clean fun, especially the Scotty dog, who seems to have the most solid characterisation. Unable to pull away from the book’s structure of a series of set-pieces, the broad characterisation and the (maybe at times jaded) energy of the cast carry the young audience along. The audience interaction gets the best reaction from the young audience, and you feel at times they might want a little more. However it is clear that the puppets, made by Talk to the Hand Productions, were a delight, carrying the reality of the stage world and the imaginations of young and old alike.

At the heart of the story: the message that all is not so golden as it appears and that to find your home maybe you need to hide a little of yourself. A rather pragmatic message for 3-8 year olds but perhaps one that may serve them better than many other tales. Oddly captivating even for this ever-aging child. 

a rocking horse drawn carriage

The Wind and the Willows
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House
December 2006/January 2007

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Stage and film adaptations of Kenneth Graham’s classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows (1908) range from the saccharine to satirical; none has truly been definitive. The difficulty lies in part with the book’s narrative, which is episodic, but more in how to translate the book’s distinctively hybrid tone. While nominally penned as an entertainment for the author’s son, the book is part portrait of the English bourgeoisie; part social critique of the industrialisation of the English countryside; part ecological fable; part nostalgic romance. Staging the book generally means making a choice: are Toad, Rat, Badger, Mole and friends English eccentrics masquerading as animals, wild animals that have sublimated their instincts and evolved into chummy Edwardians, or some occult hybrid of man and beast?

The Wind in the Willows production which has been running during the panto season since 2002 at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House treats the book as an Edwardian curiosity rummaged from the faded attic furniture and detritus of an eccentric granny-narrator. The book’s central narrative is treated as music theatre, combining pantomimic ballet, choral singing by ancillary characters, performing objects, and a chamber orchestra. The production directed and choreographed by Willam Tuckett, with music by Martin Ward, is lovingly lo-tech. Animal traits are indicated through gesture and costume, but not slavishly mimed. Video projections of rivers, recordings of the countryside and mechanical prostheses are disdained in favour of athletic character dancing, a folkloric score in the style of English composer George Butterworth (1885-1916), and clever use of set.

It is the set by Stephen and Timothy Quay that has perhaps evoked most admiration from critics and audiences alike. The Quay Brothers are perhaps the most famous living exponents of puppet animation in film, television, and music video. In recent years, they have also created impressive stage designs for theatre, opera and dance, including work for the English National Opera, the Old Vic and the National Theatre. Many of the features of their film work are evident in this production. Performers emerge from and disappear into oversize furniture, boxes transform into a tunnel, a river of striped cloth flows elegantly from a bottom wardrobe drawer. Set elements are always in motion, combining and recombining to form cosy domestic interiors, the river bank, wild wood, open road, and Badger’s tunnels. Ducks astride performers’ heads swim down the cloth river and butterfly puppets strapped to hands fly gracefully. An astonishing (though technically simple) transformation of an oversized chair into the dock during Toad’s trial and then his jail cell garners applause.

This is the sort of show that delights in such simple pleasures — including snow that falls from above and Toad in a stolen motorcar (a wraparound roadster that straps on to the dancer’s shoulders) chased through the lobby by two keystone cops during the interval. The creative team wisely avoid the book’s social critique (largely irrelevant to Britain today) and concentrate on the joy of imaginative transformation, catapulting the audience back into the anthropomorphism of childhood, where objects and animals are perceived to have the same sentience as people. As the narrator promises at the play’s beginning, it is “a most delicious lie… and full of truth.”

The production shows some signs of age and tiredness. Some performances were overly mechanical and lacked the requisite joie de vivre; the curtain call in particular felt stiff and formulaic. However, there is still much pleasure to be had in this production, and my daughter and I left with a warm holiday feeling and a compulsion to reread Graham’s book.

2 mice puppetsLittle Angel Theatre
The Mouse Queen
Unicorn Theatre, London
December 2006

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

The Mouse Queen plunders several of Aesop’s Fables, including ‘The Lion and The Mouse’ and ‘The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse’, to bring to the stage one big, great, uber-mouse story. Or rather one little, under-mouse story for in this musical tale our mouse heroine Tilly sets out to challenge the masculine creed of King of the Jungle, Leonard Lion – “The Biggest Is The Best. The Strongest Last The Longest” – and to show that gentle persuasion, perseverance and patience can win the day.

The show starts as the actor-musician-puppeteers (you have to be pretty talented to appear in this show) wend their way through the auditorium and onto the stage. Our narrator-guide (Mandy Travis, who like her fellow performers is wearing a rather fetching pair of ears) steps in and out of the action, bridging the gap between the world of the audience and the world of ‘the play’. This is always something that works well in children’s theatre, as little ones often (quite understandably) find the notion of the fourth wall a little strange – note, for example, how small children will, if not addressed directly or drawn into the action is some way, start chattering during a performance, assuming it is just like TV. But I digress, none of that here: the Unicorn has an attentive crowd who are delighted by the robust songs (brass, percussion, feisty vocal harmonies – all good stuff, written by Ben Glasstone) and the clever mix and match of 2D and 3D visuals (courtesy of designer Peter O’Rourke) in the cardboard cutout set, shadowplay, and well-manipulated puppets and objects (which include a very lovely undulating vacuum cleaner).

The script (or ‘book’ as they say, this being a musical) is good enough most of the time, but I had a bit of a problem with the simplistic ‘let’s all live together in perfect harmony’ message (is it churlish to point out that real animals do indeed need to eat each other to survive?). There are times here and there when the pace dips, and at over two hours it’s a little too long for a children’s show – there’s a bit of pre-interval wriggling going on in the seats near me and that’s just the grownups. But all things considered, The Mouse Queen demonstrates well how puppetry can merge and mesh with other artforms, in this case musical theatre, and it was a pleasure to witness the onstage energy of this talented team of multi-skilled performers working under the able direction of Steve Tiplady.

a puppet gozilla

Fold Your Own
The Drill Hall, London
October 2006

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Following a 1966 trip, literary critic and philosopher Roland Barthes described traditional Japan as a “fictive nation” made up of “empty signs” and the “free play of signifiers” in his book, The Empire of Signs. Barthes espoused an interstitial reading position, deferring the fixation of meaning in cultural forms such as haiku, in order to maximize aesthetic pleasure. Doo-cot’s theatrical encounter with contemporary Japan, Fold Your Own, is a Barthesian response to the company’s 2004 trip to Japan — a glorious, interactive romp through the empty signs of modern media culture featuring a combined cast of British and Japanese performers.

A continual stream of Japanese television commercials hawking cosmetics, food products, cars and the Universal Studios theme park are projected onto the wall of the theatre’s bar, setting the scene for the flashy images, extravagant gestures, self-conscious traditionalism, and empty signage of the performance to come. Audience members enter the theatre and are dressed in “personally selected” kimonos and hotel slippers by cast members. We pass through the Doorway of Dreams into the Land of Dreams, where the Twenty First Century Turtle Films movie Blood and Blossom, described as “the most ambitious project ever in cinema history,” is being shot. Audience members are seated on low cushions in the interstices of the film set and are given instructions by a disembodied voice as the credits of the show roll on an overhead monitor and wall projection. As extras, the voice intones, we need to make sure we move out of the way as necessary, and not disturb the principal actors by asking for autographs and the like during shooting. The rules clearly laid down, we are introduced to the eclectic cast and crew working under director Roo Fiji, including a costume designer best known for her work on a porn film Nude Nuns and a puppeteer who directs the No Show Theatre Company.

The filming then begins, with performers, puppets, projections and automatons appearing left, right, centre, and in the very middle of the audience. A Zen gardener rakes the floor, a Bunraku-style puppet transforms into a demon, Lava Boy and Power Glove duke it out with Godzilla, a Cindy Rothrock look-alike battles with a Japanese street fighter in leather jacket. Roo Fiji praises actors for their “definitive” or “superb and enigmatic” performances, or castigates them to “wake up and smell the wasabi.” Filmed action is projected around the audience. We see, for example, both small toy theatre figures against a Tokyo nightscape, and their full filmic realisation. In between shots we are treated to a sing-along of ‘My Way’ in Japanese, participatory radio exercises set to corny music and a lesson on how to fold an origami spirit bird.

Our proximity to the frenetic action and our proneness on the floor generates a distinctive stage dynamic. We laugh at the silliness of the hyperbolic proceedings, but at the same time we realise that we are dependent upon the actors to be sufficiently rehearsed not to step on us or squirt us with fake blood or entangle us in props. Much of the laughter is consequently an expression of delight in theatricality rather than the mocking laughter of camp. The puppetry under the direction of Nenagh Watson is seamlessly integrated into the mis-en-scene of pure signs. This is the world of film, not real life, and the spectacle of an origami-headed Evil Bunny monster stamping out inflated plastic bags is accepted as integral to the production without further cognition on what it might signify.

The production ended graciously with cups of green tea handed out by cast members, as we watched the disjointed trailer for Blood and Blossom and saw our own attempt at radio exercises projected on screen. Projected back at a high speed against comical music, I found it impossible not to laugh at my own awkwardness. The audience recognizes its own citizenship in the “the empire of signs” as our exercise became voided of callisthenic value. At the performance I attended, free sushi and saki were available in the bar outside. The entire atmosphere was suffused by a warm sense of community, a generous sharing of culture, and the gleeful suspension of critical faculties.

Movingstage Marionettes
Bottom’s Dream
The Puppet Barge
October 2006

Reviewed by Penny Francis

The Movingstage Marionette version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, called Bottom’s Dream, perfectly illustrated the reasons why the use of recorded dialogue within traditional puppet performance, practised since the invention of the wax gramophone record through the reel-to-reel tape and cassette recorder eras, is now almost entirely a thing of the past. Taped dialogue struggles to allow for such variables as audience laughter, for wordless action and movements, for changes of scene – all inexact calculations of necessity. Also, tapes stretch and deteriorate over time, and transference to DVD without a re-recording only retains the faults. In Bottom’s Dream there were odd silences, pauses and longueurs that seriously affected the momentum of the piece, not helped by the actors who were reluctant to pick up cues and whose comic timing left something to be desired. Naturally the illusion and involvement in the story were difficult for the spectators to maintain.

The text told only Bottom’s story, his interaction with the ‘rude mechanicals’ (an unusually gently-spoken crew) and with the fairy kingdom. The lovers are not referred to. This works fine, as it makes for a simple story a child can follow. It is for other reasons that this Dream has lost most of its midsummer magic, and little remains to enchant except the minor fairies – small globes of light – and some prettily-lit scenery.

But it has to be reported that at the final curtain of this the final performance, the audience clapped vigorously.

the lost moonLost and Found Theatre
The Lost Moon
The Little Angel Theatre
October 2006

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

The Lost Moon tells the simple folktale of a group of Lincolnshire peasants thrown into panic by the waning of the moon. The hens stop laying eggs, a cow dries up, eels are scarce. Advice from the local wise woman is ineffectual. The cow is blamed for lapping up the moon’s reflection in a puddle and is slaughtered. An itinerant lantern salesman who crossed the fens at night without being harmed by the fens’ monstrous Bogles is blamed for the moon’s disappearance. When he returns to the village, the salesman reports having been guided through the fens by a mysterious light. The peasants venture into the fens with the salesman, find the light and see it restored to the sky.

The tale is enacted by a combination of abstract tabletop puppets, object animation, shadow puppets and hand shadows by solo puppeteer Mandy Travis. Travis’ vocal impersonations are solid and evocative of the rural types of the Lincolnshire countryside, but her animation of the simple puppets demonstrates little artistry, and I found her visibility during the tabletop scenes to be a distraction. There are few signs of poetry, humour, or contemporary relevance in Travis’ playscript, and the pace is languorous, with director Nino Namitcheishvili emphasising sculptural effects over narrative. There are occasional dramatic moments, such as the rending apart of the cow and its reappearance at the conclusion as a shadow puppet jumping over the moon. The shadow work is nicely lit, though figures and animation lack expression. In general, too much time is spent shifting the tabletop puppets on the playboard or cocking one of the puppets’ heads this way or that, and the action drags. Music relieves the monotony somewhat. A folksy song sung by Travis and on-stage cellist/composer Hannah Marshall at the beginning and end sets the mood nicely (“when the monsters come you start to scream and shout”). But because Marshall plays her cello along to a pre-recorded musical track, some of the puppetry feels a bit rushed, and improvisation or responsiveness to the audience is prevented. There is no verbal banter or interaction between the performers on stage.

It is unclear to me who this production is intended to address. The text’s lack of nuance (all the peasants are depicted as naïve and superstitious, easily manipulated by the wise woman) and the simplicity of plot mean the show will appeal to few adults. The lack of a strong ending prompted a child in the audience to ask “Is it halftime break?” — after the performers had been politely applauded at the show’s end. Grayson Parry’s folkloric exhibit The Charms of Lincolnshire (Victoria Miro Gallery, 2006), which mixed authentic museum objects with Parry’s humorous recreations and distended variations of traditional material culture, showed that Lincolnshire folklore can be complex, subtle and humorous — and can be transformed to address contemporary issues such as domestic violence and the place for folk wisdom in the Internet age. The makers of this show would have been wise to have taken notes.


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