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:AO30 Summer 2010:
REVIEWS

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Dreamthinkspeak
Before I Sleep
Old Co-operative Building , London Road, Brighton | Brighton Festival
13 May 2010

Reviewed by Darren East

Dreamthinkspeak’s Before I Sleep is not so much a version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard as a reimagining that maps the play’s moment of radical change on a dying Russian estate onto a contemporary, decrepit, long-empty Brighton department store , itself on the verge – supposedly – of regeneration. And it puts the audience right into the debate, with perhaps the best organised (we never feel rushed or crowded, but always subtly know where to go) piece of interactive/installation theatre I’ve ever seen. Everyone is asked not to reveal the show’s biggest surprises, but they are profound and exquisitely presented.

The show doesn’t use puppetry as such – it leans more in general to installation than theatrical performance, with actors either performing small visual snippets or interacting with the audience on a purposeful level – but is suffused with many of the puppeteer’s favourite tropes. It plays masterfully with ideas of scale and representation. Landscapes and buildings are rendered in varying levels of miniature: dolls houses and architects’ models map on to the spaces we’re walking through, showing them from different perspectives and after different (real or potential) events, and thus provocatively disconcerting our understanding of the spaces here and now.

Objects become readable as characters and landscapes, too – if a table of round candles is a forest, a table of square candles is a city. And either might be enlivened by miniature figures of characters we’ve encountered in other forms. A forest of treestumps, still smelling of life, is both a crowd and a graveyard. Mannekins yearn to enter through a framing window, a frame we’ve already seen live actors perform behind.

The representational repetition of the human – in miniature, enacted, on film in a range of contexts including some larger than life – eventually, like the puppet, make us reconsider our relationships to the other, rethink our mental definitions of characters we know and yet find we don’t, and the places we find them in.

Before I Sleep is inspirational for its technical achievements, but even more so for a genuine and meaningful connection and conversation with the building it inhabits and the surrounding community of London Road – a conversation about the old places we know and the new places we want (and think we need?), about the winners and losers in reimagining and reconstructing our environment.

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Barb Jungr
The Fabulous Flutterbys
Little Angel Theatre, London
8 May 2010

Reviewed by Kati Francis

Immediately arresting with its vibrant foamy rod-puppet creatures and its catchy, quirky harmonies, The Fabulous Flutterbys is a fun new production for the young. Stimulating the imagination and senses, this tale of friendship and self-discovery follows caterpillars Hamish and Grace on their quest to find their friend Fiona and escape the diggers invading their home. En route they discover a host of colourful characters and eventually realise what it means to become flutterbys.

Rich in wise teachings, the power of this timeless journey is in its strong and endearing characters and its overall gentle comedy and magical innocence. Giving three faultless performances are puppeteers Jonathan Storey and Seonaid Goody, and puppeteer-musician Arran Glass, whose bold vocal characterisations, physical precision and cheery musical performances bring the world expertly to life.

The textured tabletop set is subtly shifted from industrial, angular grey to the lush refuge of the nature garden. With minimal effort and intelligent transformations using rods, flats and smoke, varied terrains materialise: the swamp of bluesy slow-worm Joe, a derelict spider-infested museum, and the tyre yard of the neo-guru Brummie Beetle, to name but a few. A variety of lush leaves pop out at different angles to provide novel spaces for the caterpillars to rest at various points on their journey, keeping the visual image clean and relevant, yet constantly shifting.

The music provides a narrative and rhythmic score to the piece which both effortlessly weaves and dramatically punctuates the story, whilst maintaining its overall light-hearted humour

My four-year-old escort thought the piece could have been even tighter, with the interval removed. She also wanted a reconnection with the protagonists once in flutterby form. The magical lantern-cocoon procession of transformation needed no words, but my companion needed reassurance that the friends were reunited and happy to have changed. A missing choreography perhaps?

This piece of highly skilled stagecraft, with seamless transitions and bright glittering images, is a first-class example of theatre for children with no unnecessary ego. It is simple and effective and made with its audience in mind – not its cynical reviewers or demanding parents. Its highly professional manipulation of theatrical praxis is constantly focused on one thing – the telling of a simple, fun and beautiful tale to an innocent and captive audience. Clean and refreshing.

 

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Wolfe Bowart / Spoon Tree Productions
LaLaLuna
Theatre Royal Brighton | Brighton Festival
6 May 2010

Reviewed by Darren East

Wolfe Bowart’s one-man show, which visited the Brighton Festival as part of a substantial UK tour – after being previously seen in London as part of LIMF 2007 – opens with a simple premise. If the moon goes out, how can it be relit? Especially after you’ve accidentally broken all the spare lightbulbs.

Thus spins out a long night of magical adventures, loosely connected by themes of the dreamlike and various forms of lunacy. Bowart is a gifted performer, and everything he does is supremely physically detailed and precise – this is much more a choreographed mime show than open clowning – so even the sections that feel like versions of circus classics (unicycling, juggling, climbing into a giant balloon, and so on) are both slick and charming. I’d have enjoyed a stronger narrative, but the audience were certainly engaged with all the witty detours, particularly a section where a young man was invited on stage to accompany Bowart’s ukulele song on a selection of whoopee cushions.

While there was not a lot of puppetry, specifically, there was much that touched on it: Bowart used a couple of feather dusters to transform himself into a big bird, and a blanket came to life before he emerged in a classic puppeteer-reveal. There was a mock-sinister running gag with a host of rag-doll rabbits that, while never animated as such, persistently arrived in unexpected places only to be vigorously thrown off-stage. And a brief and brilliant flash of hand-shadow animals, performed by torchlight from inside that giant balloon.

So it’s intriguing that after a touching sequence played out between Bowart and a projected film alter-ego, the relighting of the moon was finally achieved by a puppet, again a figure of Bowart himself, that could fly up to do it. Puppetry as the logical summation of visual theatre performance, anyone?

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Garlic Theatre
Magnificent Flying Machine
Freerange | Brighton Fringe Festival
3 May 2010

Reviewed by Darren East

It’s hard to review a show when it feels as though you haven’t really experienced it. Freerange, the venue for Garlic Theatre’s Magnificent Flying Machine, is reminiscent of the purple Underbelly tent of 2007 – hangar-sized, cold, draughty, offering awkward sightlines without raised seating, and prone to loud flapping noises whenever there’s the slightest gust of wind.

Insert a gentle, intimate piece of children’s theatre into this wildly inappropriate space and it’s unsurprising that disappointment ensues. Compound the problem by making the soundtrack – a vital part of the show – so quiet as to be barely audible, and by throwing in some rather random lighting operation, and we’re grasping at straws, or stray feathers.

At heart though, there is much to enjoy in Garlic Theatre’s latest one-person piece. It is a simple story of Professor Horn – a tetchy puppet figure in regulation flying gear – who sees an advertisement offering a five million pound prize for a successful flying machine. The Prof sets his much put-upon assistant – Mark Pitman, his bowler-hatted puppeteer – the task of imitating the birds and creating a suitable aircraft.

A mixture of mime and puppetry, with speech mainly in gibberish and sound-effects, underpinned a classic and witty power relationship with the puppeteer playing low-status to his overbearing boss. If it didn’t always quite come off – the human underdog was sometimes insufficiently sympathetic in contrast to his puppet master, and there seemed a little too much off-stage struggling – it was a neat performance layer that added to a straightforward narrative.

As always with Garlic, the puppets were beautifully made and elegantly worked. The highlights of the show were the simplest magical moments: the 'harpy bird', an avian musical instrument, flew past and silenced even the most fidgety of children; so did the construction of the flying machine, with intriguing shadows of everyday objects emerging from smoke.

I came away hoping to see the show again, somewhere else, and hoping (as often before) that it might be possible for the Brighton Fringe to find an indoor mid-size theatre venue to host shows like this one.

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Axis of Evil Productions
Oh What a Sh*tty War!

Folded Feather

Suitcase Circus

Little Angel Theatre, London
23 April 2010

Reviewed by Marianne Gray

Folded Feather's Suitcase Circus is a puppet show about a circus which is performed by household objects. The only prop is an easel with a black dress-coat hung over it, from behind which an intriguing miniature circus emerges.

Presented by a world-weary, seen-it-all ringleader from somewhere east of Ealing –  and with an occasional commentary from two old blokes recalling Sesame Street's Statler and Waldorf – acts like Limbardo the Tightrope Walker, the acrobatic potato sack Sacrobatic Acrosac, Windsor Knot the Hypnotic Tie-snake, the Dancing Milkshake Straw escaped from a fast food restaurant, and a Mexican Street Hat leap onto the stage and do their cute and often truly mad and bizarre acts.

Their little circus world is one of extraordinary attitude and mystique and these tiny performers are delicate and thoroughly credible as they make their own kind of theatre.

Choreographed cleverly by Oliver Smart and orchestrated by live music from Matthew Short, this is inventive, grown-up stuff. But don't sit in the front row unless you want to be hypnotized by Windsor Knot.

I was less intrigued by Oh What a Sh*tty War!, billed as dirty-mouthed puppets from a filthy child's toy box. The narrator, Mr Doper, a clown sock puppet, and his little friend Bobby the easily upset grey teddy bear, attempt to roar through a quick and shitty history of world wars and social
issues from the start of time.

These wars are enacted by hand puppets, stuffed animals, toys and a Barbie doll who represents the president's kidnapped daughter. In an onslaught of puppet violence and sometimes strong language they all run amok – it's unfocused chaos and not as funny as it should be.

Performed enthusiastically from behind a frame covered by a sheet, it's inventive but messy and erratic. Nice idea but needs more work.

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Matthew Robins
Sad Lucy - A Fish Opera
Little Angel Theatre, London 
20 April 2010

Reviewed by Helena S. Rampley

A menagerie of cut-out cats, robots and mutants holds the stage in Matthew Robins' eclectic mixture of animations and songs. Whether made of cardboard, wood or video, the puppetry and visual elements of the show are uniformly unpretentious and entrancing. The paper cut-outs used on an overhead projector are especially intricate and varied, possessing a childlike but occasionally ghoulish charm, as their monochrome shapes take on a secret and slightly unsettling life in Robins' bizarre stories.

The many different yet integrated stories invade the normal with the gently surreal. Unlikely friendships and non sequiturs keep what is ostensibly simple constantly fresh. Robins' tales are not constrained by the pressure to provide logical endings, and frequently include hilariously spurious lines that are allowed to lead nowhere. A particular favourite occurs in 'Nosferatu and Me', in which Robins bakes 'gingerbread in the shapes of characters from the Bible'. Many of the stories also carry with them a teasingly camp subtext, making the story of Flyboy and Mothboy entertaining for both children and adult members of the audience.

Technical elements of the show are executed flawlessly. There is a careful incorporation of colour, and computer graphics and projections are only used when they are really necessary. There is an endearingly rustic air about the whole evening: Robins' self-effacing comments to the audience, his handmade programmes, and the involvement of the audience in both song- and shade-making cannot help but add to the cosy reassurance of the show.

The Sad Lucyelement of the performance marks a break away from Robins' previous style. Whilst the stories and songs in the first half are driven by a clear (if crazy) narrative, Sad Lucy, which Robins describes as a song cycle, has a more ethereal feel to it. Slower than the rest of the stories, there is a definite sense that this work is still under development. Humour is one of Robins' key assets, and its absence in these new tales is noticeable.

An evening with Robins and his musicians is at all times engaging and oddly comforting. There is, however, a notable lack of children in the audience. Although this is a midweek performance, this fact is perhaps telling of a greater truth about the appeal of Robins' rustic cut-out stories: their old-fashioned and nostalgic animation may hold greater immediate appeal for adults than twenty-first century, attention-lapsing children.

 

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Tilanne
Double Bill: Muualla/Polar 
Jacksons Lane, London
17 April 2010

Reviewed by Helena S. Rampley

Devious, playful and flighty, Tilanne's double bill of Muuallaand Polarsuccessfully blurs the boundary between human and image. Making creative use of every available space at Jacksons Lane, performers Ilona Jäntti and Natalie Reckert provide an impressive visual spectacle, the meaning of which is sometimes elusive.

The first part of the evening, Muualla, involves Jäntti interacting with 2D animations that are projected on a whitewashed brick wall. The projections, designed by Tuula Jeker, have the feel of a retro computer game. Sometimes underwater, sometimes a more urban scape, Jäntti creates shapes for the virtual amorphous blobs to imitate. This is clever, and compelling to watch. The projections initially take the imprint of her shape, but gradually develop a life of their own. A sense of childish pleasure and a myth of invincibility are engendered, and the close interaction between dance and graphic art is suggestive of an art installation. Aspects of this interplay are clear and interesting: music and visuals work together to create a world of imprisonment that is incomprehensible but ultimately unthreatening. However, towards the end of the piece, the images become more obscure. Womb music, crustaceans and circus juggling are all interesting in their own right, but there is little coherency. Circles upon circles confront our sight: is this supposed to replicate cell division, speech bubbles or just look pleasing?

After a brief interval, the second part of the double bill, Polar, treats us to something very different. Reckert surprises the audience by inhabiting a cage above their heads, which looks like a cross between a spider's web and a bed mattress. Like a menace in the corner of the eye, the audience is forced to watch both Jäntti on stage and the slightly sinister creature behind them. Polaris certainly visually impressive: the two traverse the rails, pipes and ledges of the theatre as they become children's toys brought to life. The music, by Luke Styles, also reflects this malleability, with its deep, flexible and springy sound. The strength of the two performers is amazing, as they balance frighteningly on one another. Innovative use of chickenwire in aerial work is additionally striking.

Whilst the performance is carried out flawlessly and with great conviction, this double billis in need of either greater explanatory material or a unifying thread.

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Freehand Theatre
Who's Been Sitting in my Chair
Little Angel Theatre, London
10 April 2010

Reviewed by Penny Francis

Freehand is a well-established theatre based in West Yorkshire. Animations, when it was still a paper magazine, declared the company 'one of the most respected and popular touring companies in the country', and, after many years, we can stand by that judgement.

The show at the Little Angel was a version of the folk tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, narrated and performed by Simon Hatfield, one of the company’s founding directors, with the other being Lizzie Allen, who writes and directs and helps to design the shows.

Who’s been Sitting in my Chair? was gently entertaining and funny, and the years have not lessened the charm and clarity with which the ageless Simon tells the story and communicates with his very young audience. The setting – the ground floor of the cottage of the Three Bears – was attractive and quirky, with much to entertain the eye during the narrative. During the action, motion, animation and rises in temperature were minimal, and only Baby Bear made an appearance (though Simon became Mummy Bear briefly). Goldilocks was a simple cloth doll-puppet, operated hands-on.

The show was a typical and highly professional piece of storytelling with objects, aimed at 3-7s, but I’d hesitate to recommend it to the average sophisticate over five.

 

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Direction and Design by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch
The Addams Family
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York
7 April 2010

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

It seemed like a good idea on paper, I am sure. The macabre creations of Charles Addams are famous to three generations of Americans from Addams’ unsettling New Yorker cartoons starting in the 1930s, the 1960s camp television series, and a pair of high octane Hollywood films directed by Barry Sonnenfeld in the 1990s. Add a helping of Improbable’s Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (best remembered by American audiences for their comic-gothic Shockheaded Peter), a dash of Woody Allen (via a book by Allen’s frequent collaborator Marshall Brickman), a smidgen of puppetry by American puppet director Basil Twist and a ration of Broadway stalwarts Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth and serve it up as a family musical. What could go wrong?

Unfortunately, just about everything. The audience at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne theatre was primed to like this show – clapping and snapping their fingers along to the overture’s opening melody borrowed from the TV show, delighting at the appearance of all the main characters on stage, laughing on cue. But there was something forced about this show of appreciation – perhaps a result of the $100 plus ticket prices? – as my 11-year-old companion whispered to me, ‘everyone claps too much’. Jokes are tired, melodies derivative, choreography bland and song lyrics often incomprehensible. The plot is simple to the point of boredom: spirited eighteen-year-old masochistic Wednesday introduces her cheery boyfriend, Lucas Beineke, a straight-laced writer from Ohio, and her boyfriend’s parents to her family. The Addams try to present a normal front, but cannot contain their weirdness. Ultimately everyone in the two families come out better from the encounter. Lucas embraces risk, Lucas’ mother becomes emotionally and sexually liberated, Lucas’ father decides to open a fish store, and Wednesday’s father Gomez Addams (played by Mr Lane) promises to take his wife on a one-day-seven-night-trip to Paris.

Twist’s puppets are all visually interesting – an animated curtain tassel is a real scene-stealer – but the manipulation by members of the company is under-rehearsed, occasionally even perfunctory. A giant squid, a carnivorous plant and a giant iguana hiding under a bed have barely the traces of personalities. And the appearances by Thing (a bodiless hand) and Cousin Itt (a living mop of hair) are so brief as to be cameos. Only one of the puppet scenes really sparkles, a ballad in which a flying Uncle Fester sings to the object of his desire – the moon. Fester, who in this scene is represented as a humanette (with the face and torso of actor Kevin Chamberlin and the limbs of two other cast members), floats effortlessly through space, to almost poetic effect.

The real star of the show (with apologies to the hard-working Mr Lane) is without doubt Crouch’s set. Scenes shift fluidly between graveyard, interior and exterior of the house, and the mansion’s park grounds. Staircases appear to rise forever, panels open and close to reveal devices of torture and family ghosts, and the stage curtain is in continual motion, revealing and concealing, tempting and taunting.

To be fair to McDermott and Crouch, it is not clear how much of their direction remains. The show was substantially doctored by ‘creative consultant’ Jerry Zaks after floundering in Chicago try-outs. One gets a sense of the degree to which Improbable’s edgy humour has been toned down from a song in the style of Cole Porter sung by men exiled by their wives to the basement (‘Let’s not talk about anything else but love’). There is a kernel of risqué gay humour (‘but love, but love, but love,’ the men sing). But the staging makes little of this. Rocky Horror this ain’t. One can hope that in the unlikely event The Addams Family transfers to the West End some of this edge might be restored for Improbable’s appreciative followers.

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Aracaladanza
Clouds
Sadlers Wells Theatre, London
2 April 2010

Reviewed by Penny Francis

The matinee was presented in two sections: the Clouds dance-theatre show and The Light Garden, an installation in the Lilian Baylis auditorium next door.

Unfortunately the Clouds show bored my four-year-old companion for most of the time and she asked for paper and pen to draw in her lap, looking up from time to time at the more lively moments onstage. I confess to finding it disappointing too: the publicity promised marionettes and object play, in the style of Magritte, but there were no puppets and the objects which featured in a series of vignettes only occasionally brought Magritte to mind. Surreal it very rarely was. After the first two or three items, which promised good things and seemed to me to owe a lot to Philippe Genty’s use of enveloping swathes of material, I found most of the items repetitive and not over-inventive, set to over-amplified and equally repetitive music.

The weather was much in evidence, with clouds formed by sheets of white plastic shaped around white balloons which the dancers held aloft. With the aid of some magical projections the clouds brought rain and snow, thunder and lightning, night and day. Sometimes the performers were dressed in vivid blue, sometimes black and red, sometimes white – very effective, but one suspected that a small budget had forced cuts in a much richer spectacle. Or perhaps the stage was just too large.

My four-year-old liked the metal hospital tables on wheels best: they were pushed and pulled rapidly about in their own sort of dance.

The performers were excellent, radiating good cheer, energy and precision. The show came from Spain. Despite my reservations, it held the young audience still and quiet, and the reception was warm.

But my companion and I preferred the installation next door. It was called The Light Garden and was said to be the result of research into notions of chaos, communication and control in relation to parenting. None of this was evident to this visitor. For us the charm lay in its simplicity, the invitations of the space and the active lighting.

The auditorium had been cleared to make a big open space, where young children could wander around with a torch in hand, exploring various attractive things in the twilight – two or three small tents, piles of cushions to roll around on, a panoramic projection on the back wall. Background lighting and music was subtle, the atmosphere soothing. My companion discovered that if she stood on different parts of a rubber ring set in the floor she could change the weather on the rear wall projection (echoing the dance performance), and she caused rapid thunderstorms alternating with blue skies and birdsong. This she enjoyed very much.

The filmmaker and installation artist Rachel Davies was largely responsible.

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Directed by Roman Stefanski  
Charlie and Lola's Best Bestest Play
Polka Theatre, London
1 April 2010

Reviewed by Peter Charlton

When that nice Mister John Birt, a little prematurely, ended my career in children’s television I stopped watching children’s telly and the need to keep up with what’s new in children’s books also ended. So my visit to Wimbledon’s Polka Theatre was my introduction to Lauren Child’s delightful characters, Charlie and Lola, who began life in a book and went on to have a popular television series in cartoon form. Jonathan Lloyd (the adaptor) and Roman Stefanski (the director) have skilfully recreated this for the stage, cleverly using flat, stylised figures and bright colours to give that picture book look to the production.

In Act I we meet Charlie, the goody-goody brother of Lola, his naughty-naughty little sister. Charlie wants to get their bedroom tidied but tidying isn’t in Lola’s vocabulary and her vivid imagination takes her away from the task in hand – she goes on adventures with super-cat, takes a trip into space in a rocket, and stars in her own magic show. In Act II, Charlie becomes a bit less stuffy as he acts in loco parentis, trying to put his wayward sister to bed. Because of her over-imaginative mind this entails drinking her cocoa with tigers, taking a bath with whales, having a pyjama party with dancing dogs and reading a bedtime story with an ogre.

The three main character puppets, made by Simon Buckley, have pre-recorded voices whilst everything else that moves is excellently voiced and manipulated by a well-skilled and choreographed team of puppeteers. Praise is also due for the best programme I’ve ever seen at a children’s theatre; less grammatically correct than the National Theatre programmes (surely the best theatre programmes of all), but equally imaginative and interesting.

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Action Transport Theatre and Theatre Hullabaloo
My Mother Told Me Not To Stare
Unicorn Theatre, London
20 March 2010

Reviewed by Eleanor Margolies

Once upon a time, the narrator tells us, a boy called Bobby was delivered by stork to a cobbler and his wife in the town of Upper Crumble. They keep him in a cupboard till he’s old enough to work, and then exploit him brutally in the best traditions of Victorian gothic (‘It never did us any harm’). With the town’s other children, he attends the weekly recitation of the ‘mymothertoldmes’, a set of rules ending with the assertion that a child who deliberately breaks a rule ‘will be a child no more’. It’s a nice ambiguity – will the child become an adult or cease to exist? When children start to disappear, Bobby and his friend Emily set out to discover what has happened to them.

The ambition of this new operetta for children, the haunting, unsweetened quality of the music by Martyn Harry, and the accomplished performances by the five versatile actor-singer-musician-puppeteers are all impressive, but the piece lacks the structure that would allow us to think feelingly about dark things. It’s stuffed full of powerful motifs: parental cruelty, the abuse of power, missing children, alternative worlds. The continuing importance of these themes can be seen in the way they recur in myth, fairytale and recent literature for adults as well as children. When given room to breathe, each suggests questions of deep interest to children: do parents really know best? When is it right to break a rule? And what should an individual do when domestic rules conflict with school rules or national law? But My Mother Told Me Not to Stare crams in too much plot and too many minor characters  to allow any meaningful exploration of these problems.

A series of six cautionary tales about children who break the rules, portrayed in song by grotesque puppets and an arch narrator (rather like Shockheaded Peter), is combined with a metaphysical adventure undertaken by two children from an alternative reality version of the 1930s, played by human actors (rather like His Dark Materials). The two genres sit uneasily together. There are moments of enjoyable disaster and downfall in the puppet scenes, as when a schoolboy’s cap is set alight – flipped into a gorgeous flash of orange ribbons – just to see how it smells. However, this boy is bullied into breaking rules, not a free-spirited bounder. The rules are either banal (‘always eat your crusts’) or quirky in an unexplained way (‘never turn your back on the sea’), and the children’s reasons for breaking them are muddy.

The impulse to disobey is similarly underpowered in the main plot. When Bobby and Emily fail to trap the mysterious child-catcher, Emily is ‘taken’. In despair, Bobby crawls underground, tunnelling through the earth to emerge in a red Australian desert. An Aboriginal elder or godlike voice of conscience, a ‘good father’ in the form of a disembodied voice and giant projected eye of a bird, rattles through a hasty lesson in self-determination, discouraging Bobby’s threatened violence against nature in non-judgemental terms: ‘It’s up to you... I’ll think less of you, but it’s your choice… Not all rules are good… If you decide for yourself, you’ll be on your way to becoming a man…’

Sinews stiffened, Bobby decides to return to Upper Crumble to find Emily and ends up in the nightmarish ‘Fixing Kitchen’, where embryos float in amniotic bubbles. Here children ‘have the badness boiled out of them’ by a terrifying masked Nurse who turns rebellious children back into blameless infants, ready for despatch by stork to new families. Spirited Emily has already been reduced to a baby, and Bobby is next. Suddenly recalling the ban mentioned in the title, he stares at the Nurse. She melts, vanquished all too easily. He goes, never to return to Upper Crumble.

We’re told that Bobby’s self-sacrifice ends the disappearances, but it’s not clear if the Nurse was a usurper or the embodiment of Upper Crumble’s cruel ‘Mother’. If the mymothertoldmes became ‘mere suggestions’, did child labour also end? Bobby denounces the Nurse as a ‘fraud’, but her actions are real in the world of the story, and they carry so many sinister echoes of horrors in our world that they require a much stronger kind of opposition. In a bizarre coda, a reincarnated Emily returns to the haunts of her first childhood and, joyfully remembering her lost love, decides to find Bobby, certain that he is ‘out there’. It’s a romantic conclusion which cannot counterbalance the muddle of fears and unresolved questions provoked by the story.

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Inkfish
Three Good Wives
Little Angel Theatre, London
19 March 2010

Reviewed by Kati Francis

Three Good Wives has a clear goal from the start: to impress on the audience the unique suffering of the women left behind when the men go to war –  specifically western women whose husbands have been called to Afghanistan and Iraq. As a western woman without a husband at war, I was not sure if I was meant to be in the audience. And as a western woman who worries more for the Afghan wives and children and has a slight annoyance at the laments of any family who didn't think the husband might actually die when he chose to join the Army, maybe I am not the best person to be reviewing this production.

Inkfish’s tight manipulation and highly focused ensemble work seamlessly weave together rear rod and shadow puppetry with physical theatre, verbatim monologues, CNN footage and various sound samples from web programmes and interviews with ‘women who wait’ (and their advisors), creating an intense depiction of these stoic ‘victims’ of war. However, I was left cold. The white featureless faces, the lack of any individual character in either the women or puppets, the lack of any humour or self-awareness, the constant looks of knowing and self-contained suffering between the players without any foils, relief or revelation left me feeling no connection to the subject matter. With its heavy, unsubtle visual metaphors of despair (house walls cracking open, cockroaches invading, red bleeding in) and its sustained focus on the power of collective mourning defying isolation (as the tabletop blank-faced females pull out the thread which ties each other’s lips closed), I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been best received by a more specific audience of army wives. I had been excited by the promise of ‘mytho-historic heroines’, but found the whole experience far too weighed down by domesticity and psychological angst.

The players worked as a faultless collective and the layers of sound, multimedia and live performance built a strong atmosphere of mourning and female strength and survival. But for me the joy of theatre comes from its ability to find universal resonances, connect across cultures and moments in time, bring beauty and laughter to the most tragic themes and leave me with a more profound understanding of a subject. Three Good Wives was, rather, a well-presented, honest and heartfelt reminder and manifestation of a particular group's suffering.

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Forkbeard Fantasy
The Colour of Nonsense
The Arches, Glasgow | National Review of Live Art
18 March 2010

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

Forkbeard Fantasy have gained a well-deserved reputation as creators of a unique style of ‘theatre of animation’ – combining physical comedy with visual theatre forms that include puppetry, automata, mechanical sets, on-screen animation, and their trademark ‘crossing the celluloid divide’ technique of mixing live and filmed action.

In the 1970s, the company’s work was often described as ‘performance art’, and Forkbeard appeared at one of the very first National Review of Live Art festivals. In recent years, the company has felt that they haven’t really fitted into the performance/live art scene, seeing themselves as rather too irreverent for the serious art world. It was interesting, therefore, to see them on the bill for the 3oth anniversary National Review – which was dedicated to the artists who have appeared at the festival over the years.

The show they chose to present, The Colour of Nonsense, couldn’t have been more apt. I’ve seen this show before, but my appreciation grew on second viewing: delivered within a festival of live art to a ‘knowing’ audience, a show that has the absurdities of the art world and the consequences of the pursuit of commercialism as its central theme can be appreciated in an entirely different way.

This show sees Forkbeard stripped back to its core members: onstage we have brothers Tim and Chris Britton, and performer cum technician/sound artist Ed Jobling. Offstage are puppeteer and maker extraordinaire Penny Saunders, and filmmaker Robin Thorburn.

Forming a classic male clown trio, the onstage three play a pack of old-timers – Splash, Line and Scuro – who are struggling to keep a foot in the fine art door. Line (Tim Britton) is too busy with his Edward Lear animations to worry about the stuff and nonsense of the contemporary art world; Scuro (Ed Jobling) spends his time tinkering and communing with the beasts – Cedric the Fly (a brilliant invention who exists on film, and on stage mostly just as a realistically annoying buzz, but occasionally visualised by Tim Britton wearing an extraordinary set of fly’s eyes with integrated film, a great take on the notion of 3D glasses! ), and Dolly the Parrot (one of Penny Saunders’ great animatronic inventions). That leaves Splash (Chris Britton) – vain and proud, he wears his toupee with pride and likes to feel that he’s on top of his game, but secretly he’s more interested in painting watercolour miniatures of tulips than any of this contemporary art rubbish: ‘I do conceptual for the money…’

Caught by the short and curlies after a foreign festival debacle (‘You’ll never work in Oslo again!’), threatened by the opposition (Those young Turks queuing up at the cutting edge – they’re all so young!’), and needing to come up with the goods for a major festival at Milan’s Museo del Absurdum, our boys in the artroom dream up the ploy of creating an invisible artwork (‘the most beautiful thing I’ve never seen’). The Emperor’s New Clothes scam works, and the whole thing is so successful that there are soon ‘post-invisible’ and ‘neo-invisible’ schools. Then a catastrophe occurs: the invisible artwork gets stolen…

The story builds with a wonderful layering of visual effects, many circling around set-pieces for each of the three main characters. Line, locked into the studio at night, finds himself in a weird interaction with his graphic-novel-in-progress, which starts to predict rather than record his real life, and he then gets himself all muddled up with Edward Lear’s Jumblies and The Dong with a Luminous Nose in a classic crossing-the-celluloid-divide sequence. Scuro is always busy, wheeling his odd illuminated workstation on and offstage, and fiddling with bits of kit – a great excuse for some fantastic Foley sound effects, cheeky shadowplay, and terrific interactions with aforementioned animatronic puppet, Dolly the Parrot (who denotes the passing of days with an arch ‘cockadoodle do’). Splash’s love of traditional painting is expressed through a number of beautiful ‘daydream’ sequences where the (white) set, screens and stage are washed with great swathes of colour in a kind of wordless animated tribute to the world of paint, evoking every great colourist from Turner to Kandinsky to Rothko to Hodgkin.

Funny, sharp, gently satirical, visually stunning. Full of verbal, aural and visual witticisms, classic comic performances, and all-in-all beautifully realised and executed. I can’t really remember what my reservations were on first viewing, but whatever they were, they were washed away in the sea of onstage colour the second time round…

And it was great to see Forkbeard Fantasy storming the performance art crowd: far from being offended, the young Turks of NRLA laughed till tears ran down their faces.

A grand success!

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Nina Conti
Talk to the Hand
Little Angel Theatre, London
12 March 2010

Reviewed by Emma Leishman


Before she embarked on her tour 'down under ' to the Melbourne Comedy Festival, Nina Conti made a pit stop at the Little Angel to treat her audiences to a preview of her latest ventriloquist show , Talk to the Hand, for one night only.

Having already heard whispers of her talent and quality performances I was anticipating a good night of theatre and was not disappointed. Entering the stage with a collection of bags, looking like either a well-dressed bag lady or a manic shopaholic, the sweet Ms Conti greets the packed small theatre. Her demeanour is quickly juxtaposed with the arrival of an array of lewd and rude characters, including the crowd favourite Monkey, her own puppet version of her Granny, girlfriend - seeking Owl, and a new character with an ever - changing accent.

As a performer, Conti is extremely comfortable on stage, knowing exactly what an audience likes. Her seemingly improvised scripting allows her to incorporate audience members into her act, getting away with asking personal questions and even using people to assist in bringing to life 'the ultimate puppet ' : a plastic caricature half mask that cove rs the jaw with an oversized mouth piece, allowing Conti to use you like one of her 'dummies ' . What comes next is laugh out loud hilarious, but not to be spoilt for future audiences!

With an existential twist top -to -tail, Conti literally talks with and to her hand using her 'monkey voice '. Monkey finally achieves the ultimate schizophrenic goal, taking over Conti and leaving the audience a little more disturbed but curiously still smiling.

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Hatch Festival
Little Angel Theatre, London
23 –27 February 2010

Reviewed by Eleanor Margolies

Having provided rehearsal space and support for companies making puppet theatre for adults through the Incubate programme for the past three years, the Little Angel Theatre recently offered them a chance to stretch the wings of fledgling shows in a scratch festival called Hatch. (That’s the end of the egg-related puns for this review, though I can make no promises on the theatre’s behalf.)

Though the mini-festival is dedicated to showing work-in-progress aimed at adults, the first evening of the festival offered a triple bill for children. Yurtville (Chand Martinez and Lizzie Wort) presented The Chronicles of Bitter and Twisted, an urban sequel to the story of the Ugly Duckling. Some years after his famous transformation and despite his local celebrity, the Ugly Duckling is losing his looks and has not found his place on the pond. He meets a similarly alienated hoodie-wearing duck born to a swan family, and they form a spiky friendship. The piece was beautifully performed, funny and touching, with a sense of the teenage voice not often heard in puppet theatre. I look forward to seeing more from this company.

Fussy Freya, directed by Peter Glanville, is based on a children’s book about a girl who becomes a fussy eater when a younger brother arrives: ‘Freya had an appetite as fine as fine could be / She’d munch up all her greens for lunch and gobble fish for tea.’ There were some great touches to a performance still in the earliest stages of development: the use of song, a landscape constructed from vegetables and an eccentric French grandmother. However, the themes were explored from a very adult point of view, with the puppet Freya mutely pushing away her food as the adults plotted behind her back, and it would be good to see how this piece might develop.

The young company EyeSpy, directed by Liat Rosenthal, has been developing The Kapok Tree while in residency at the Puppet Centre Trust. The ingenious design employs recycled junk to create puppet eagles and Amazonian rainforest. The story follows Davi, a fledgling eagle, as he searches for a new home with the help of the forest animals. I particularly enjoyed a lovely Gaian moment of animation in which the forest floor seemed to breathe, and the diverting suggestion that learning circus skills might help you find your niche in the ecosystem, but was disappointed by the shorthand representation of people in hard hats as bad guys.

The festival also included work-in-progress by Ben Glasstone, Pangolin’s Teatime and Unpacked, as well as Sean Myatt’s lecture-performance Instinctive Object Ramblings. But I was only able to pop back once more, to catch Mark Pitman of Garlic Theatre as he told the story of The Forgotten Tailor. Archive photographs and a live shadow image of his grandfather’s shop in Lahore were projected onto a suspended sheet as Mark told a compelling story of silences and discoveries, accompanied by the sound of shears cutting through cloth. This may be the germ of a longer autobiographical piece, or just a one-off experiment, but the friendly environment of the Hatch festival seemed the perfect place to see and discuss it.

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