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REVIEWS: Autumn 2009

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Polka Theatre and Little Angel Theatre, Skitterbang Island
Boxobits Company, Occasionally Ovid
Sketty Productions, Tom’s
Indefinite Articles, The Chalk Giants
• Scamp Theatre, Stick Man Live on Stage!
Improbable, Lifegame
• Puppet (R)evolution, Hooray for Hollywood
Eclipse Shadow Theatre, Madeleine on Tip-Toe
• Horse + Bamboo Theatre, Little Leap Forward


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Polka Theatre and Little Angel Theatre
Skitterbang Island
Polka Theatre, London
21 August 2010

Reviewed by Helena Rampley

The Adventure Theatre at the Polka is the perfect location for Skitterbang Island. The multi-level seating (including floor space) allows the audience to be easily drawn into this intimate piece of storytelling. Cutlery, glass and odd bits of metal hang suspended from the ceiling making Skitterbang’s cave feel like the junk-filled back room of a collector; he is a strange creature, but not an altogether unknowable one.

This puppet opera follows the story of a young girl called Marie and her opera-singing Uncle Edvard. The pair are inexplicably swept away at sea. Separated from her uncle, Marie is aided by a curious monster called Skitterbang. The hand-operated puppets used for the three main characters are wonderfully expressive, and Skitterbang’s forehead particularly so. The staging itself is also easily moveable and used effectively to transform the stage from cave to underwater world. It is a shame that the dexterity of the set and these puppets is not revealed sooner; Skitterbang undersells itself by displaying the complexity of its puppets too slowly. Although the intention is perhaps towards subtlety, a little less understatement might capture the attention of the (young) audience more immediately.

The fusion of puppetry and opera for children is a new and potentially fruitful medium to be explored. On this occasion, however, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the suitability of the music to tell the story. The music itself is well written and often enchantingly otherworldly, but the form did not always seem to have a natural rapport with the story. Although Uncle Edvard may be a singer, there were moments when I wondered how easy it would be for the children in the audience to decipher Skitterbang’s narrative through the operatic diction. Given the less than resonant acoustic of the Adventure Theatre, the incorporation of recorded music had a greater effect than what was produced live. Though it is important to introduce children to music and its conventions, it might have been more successfully done on this occasion through a greater use of recorded sound.

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Boxobits Company
Occasionally Ovid
Etcetera Theatre, London | Camden Fringe
13 August 2010

Reviewed by Penny Francis

The show had ‘Festival Fringe’ – in this case ‘Camden Fringe’ – written all over it, meaning that it was an example of ‘rough theatre’ designed for a young, late-night (preferably well-oiled) audience in a small space, in a style that was informal and interactive, with content that was a modish reaction to any ideas of decorum or modesty as to intimate physical matters, or any connections between puppetry and children. There are a number of puppet shows on the circuits now, heaving with blood, sexual displays and perversions of all kinds, difficult to perform if your actors are human. Soon we will have a job persuading bookers that puppet shows are for children too.

Occasionally Ovid was a ‘satirical’ update of three classical Greek myths (Erysichthon, Tereus and Phaeton – only the last was known to me) played by Helen Ainsworth. She wielded a number of grotesque latex puppet heads loosely attached to pieces of cloth or other inappropriate costuming, the only set being a table and chairs. The puppetry manipulation was painful – dolly-waggling at its worst – the technique being one hand in the puppet-head held in front of the puppeteer’s face, severely restricting her vision, and the other hand left to do a thousand other tasks very imprecisely. The action and text delivery were frenetic almost throughout. All of this was doubtless intended for comedy purposes, but I maintain that the comic effects would have been enormously enhanced if the puppets had been better made and operated.

Although it is clear that the poorly attended matinee performance induced anxiety in this too-sober spectator, it has to be acknowledged that Ainsworth’s vocal skills are prodigious: she varied her tone to fit a number of characters as well as accomplishing very good lip-sync, which in the show’s context of speed and quick changes of character showed a high degree of professional expertise.

The format of three separated stories about caricatured mythical figures worked well, but were I think too alike in style, mood and pace. There are great ideas in the show, which deserves development if not refinement. The director was the respected mime artist John Mowat.

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Sketty Productions
Tom’s
Camden People's Theatre, London | Camden Fringe
7 August 2010

Reviewed by Emma Leishman

It could have been another ‘Hallmark’ conclusion when the well-timed video of the real life interview with Tom, a man who became a quadriplegic in a snowboarding accident, was played; but instead we were left with a sense of genuine honesty and sweet vulnerability at the end of Sketty’s new piece of theatre.

Presented in the hot and dark black box space at Camden People’s Theatre (as part of Camden Fringe – being tagged as the alternative to Edinburgh) Tom's is an account, based on a real life story, of what happens to people after a life-altering accident. The ingenuity of the direction of the piece comes from not only placing the lead characters, Ellen and Tom, in a constant state of displacement but incorporating the audience into this state as well with clever use of sound, darkness, torchlight and puppetry.

I had seen an earlier version of Tom's as a work-in-progress at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol. The story while in its infancy conveyed a tenderness that was maintained in the full production. What was more gratifying to see, however, was the progressive leap in puppetry from manipulated wire body object to a believable life-size puppet, complete with realistic papier-mâché head. Attention to details and human physicality awarded a greater degree of conviction from not only Tom the puppet but also Tom the actor creating a performance robustly nuanced.

The ‘elephant’ in the room was the metaphor of puppetry cleverly likened to paralysis, however this was respectfully, if not innocently, theatrically managed, steering away from the obvious pathos of the situation – delving into the intensity of the issue, but finding the moments you can smile at.

I hope this piece gets on the touring circuit, as audiences deserve to see it.

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Indefinite Articles
The Chalk Giants
Norwich Puppet Theatre
30 July 2010

Reviewed by Cariad Astles

This innovative production was developed in collaboration with Norwich Puppet Theatre; it was created, devised and performed by Steve Tiplady and Sally Brown of Indefinite Articles. The company has previously distinguished itself by its use of matter and object animation through shows which have often focused on a single element (for example, oil in The Magic Lamp, sand in Dust, and clay in Claytime). This show uses chalk as its primary medium and is a creative wander through mythogeography and fairytale.

The show uses chalk, projected video, and shadow imagery and the layering of images to create a multi-textured narrative. The story is framed by the filmed image of Tiplady and Brown exploring the real colossal chalk giants inscribed upon British hills and downs, such as the Wiltshire giants. The question asked by the performers is whether giants really existed… the answer lying in the discovery of the giants on the hillsides. This framing device leads into fragments of stories and reflections about giants, mostly contained within the story of Jack the Giantkiller. The story is explored through a series of images and gently subverted, leaving the audience with a number of questions: did Jack kill the giant? Should he have killed the giant?

The show premiered at Norwich Puppet Theatre in late July before going on national tour. I found the show an exciting and intelligent dive into the links that exist between people and the stories they read, see or discover. It mixes techniques of animation and of storytelling in a dynamic and visually exciting way. I saw one of the very first shows; at this point the different fragments of the storytelling and narrative were not fully resolved and this left a slight feeling of confusion about the links between the sections; it was, however, a fantastic exploration of intertexuality whilst not being patronising or academic.

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Scamp Theatre
Stick Man Live on Stage!
E4 Udderbelly, London
17 July 2010

Reviewed by Helena Rampley

A swift, gentle and understated show, Stick Man Live on Stage! is an adaptation of the children's book written by Julia Donaldson. Like much children's theatre, its popularity is greatly helped by the familiarity of many children with the book; it is far easier to take a child to see something they are fond of than to risk taking them to something new and possibly disappointing. Whilst Stick Man Live does not disappoint, the enormous potential of the performers is somewhat restricted by the necessity of the dramatic adaptation to adhere to the narratorial devices of the book.

Handheld wooden puppets are revealed, graduated in size, of Stick Man, his Lady Love and Stick children three. Being sticks, their malleability is limited. This results in a double representation of Stick Man: not only is he shown in stick form, he is also played by wily actor Mark Kane. This doubling is, at least initially, confusing. Whilst the production is obliged to represent Stick Man as he is depicted in the book, the range of movement required in our central protagonist exceeds the capabilities of the humble stick. Kane's bounce, vigour and facial expressions are fantastic, and leave us wondering why the puppet need be included at all.

Stick Man Liveredeems itself, however, with the remarkable variety in both its music and visual effects. Brian Hargreaves' percussion, whistling and ukulele playing are both deft and charming, and help transport us to a multitude of different settings. Simple props are also used to connote sometimes complex ideas, such as twirling umbrellas to suggest rain. Memory games, rubber rings and a glitter ball enthralled many members of the audience and, as such, the quality of the presentation compensated for the uneasy incorporation of puppets.

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Improbable
Lifegame
Lyric Hammersmith, London
8 July 2010

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Described as ‘part chat show, part improv show’, Lifegame is Improbable’s take on a theatre game originated by Keith Johnstone in which a guest is interviewed about his life, and episodes are spontaneously enacted on stage by a cast using ‘bits and bobs’ – furniture, props, costume items – combined with spontaneously constructed masks and puppets and improvised music and lights. First staged in 1998, the show has been revived regularly over the course of the company’s history with different performers, and different guests interviewed nightly.

The night I saw it at Lyric Hammersmith the name of the man in the silver envelope was Kerry Shale, a Canadian-born actor who has lived in London since 1978. A variety of dramatic and meta-dramatic techniques were used to dramatise Shale’s life as he told it to interviewer Phelim McDermott. The cast acted out their interpretation of Shale’s first memory (the gift of an itchy Mexican costume); they staged a Friday night shabbas dinner, with lines vetted by Shale with a bell (for approval) or horn (for inaccuracy); Shale acted the part of a teacher in a parent-teacher conference; he whispered in the ears of two actors playing himself and a friend; he provided background information on an adolescent love triangle played out by the cast in the style of a Gilbert and Sullivan musical; he took on the role of the spectre of his uncle George imparting life advice to a young Shale; he provided voiceover as the actor playing Shale wrote a lonely hearts ad to the woman he eventually married. Shale also witnessed an event he never saw: his father’s renunciation, after an operation, of a hairpiece he had worn for some 70 years. The toupée magically becomes animated, walking across a table and gracefully flying away, as his father bids ‘au revoir, old friend’.

At this performance with Shale, which will not be repeated again, the acting was polished and rapport between guest and company excellent, and there was an abundance of humour. But there was also much sentimentality, and an emphasis on ‘archetypal’ moments (a family dinner, the first kiss, the discovery of a professional calling) that conformed to biographical convention, but not to the shape of life as actually experienced. There was, above all, an emphasis on literalness, meaning that moments of fantasy and daydreaming available to be disclosed through the use of performing objects were downplayed in preference to showing ‘how it was’, in McDermott’s words. The emphasis on biography led to a closure of dialogical possibilities. Performers were not properly introduced on stage and when Shale signalled that he had seen McDermott batting around a giant phallus in Pan (Barbican, 2009), McDermott refused to comment, saying diffidently that the show was about Shale’s life, not his. There was little admission that Shale shared a profession with the other performers on stage; no moments of Shale’s stage or screen biography were acted out directly. This curiously lack of reflexivity meant that a potentially riveting moment, when a mask was crafted around Shale’s face for him to play his uncle George, passed by with little commentary. An opportunity was thus lost to discourse on the art of acting, and the drudgery of stage makeup.

Instead, McDermott offered the banal observation that Shale was not forced to perform any of the actions on stage, he could say ‘no’ to anything at any time. (To which one of the actors commented that this sounded like Shale was about to undergo a torture.) Some attempt was made to implicate the audience in the show via an installation in the main foyer where we were encouraged to tell and record our own stories. But without the cast modelling such behaviour by interpolating their lives with Shale’s this felt like a pro-forma gesture of community outreach.

I must emphasise that the performance with Shale will not be repeated, and it is very possible that on other nights McDermott and his cast will be more involved in the show as people, not only performers. I hope too that they will be open to the possibilities of daydreaming and the enactment of alternate realities that fulfil life aspirations, as oppose to merely mimicking quixotic actuality.

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Puppet (R)evolution
Hooray for Hollywood
Rosemary Branch Theatre, London
7 July 2010

Reviewed by Peter Charlton

'Did you enjoy the show?' My wife asked when I got back from Hoxton, one evening in July (a previous theatre visit had found me coming home not very happy!). 'I don’t think “enjoy” is the right word,' I replied. 'It was pretty powerful stuff.'

I did my first children’s theatre show back in 1956 and since then a large part of my career, both as a performer and writer/director, has been spent either for or with children. As well as giving me quite a good living, children have also given me a lot of fun and, if I take off the rose-tinted spectacles, a certain amount of pain. One thing that I always note is the trust that is usually in a child’s eyes when they come to ask you for advice or explanation. People who betray this innocent trust earn not just my contempt but my bewilderment that adults can treat them in this way. Wasn’t there something about anyone who mistreats one of these, it would be better if a millstone be hung about their neck and they be flung into the sea. Sadly, as we know all too well, there won’t be enough millstones to go round.

Raven Kaliana’s moving and at times appalling tale of two children’s encounters with the porn film industry, a true story based on her own experiences, made me angry and disgusted in equal measures and, I must admit, fairly damp-eyed for much of the time. At the start of the production, the young Sylvia’s parents are more complacent than complaisant about their daughter’s film career. Mum chats inanely over coffee with a friend, seemingly thinking Sylvia is being launched as an actor but not bothering to check; Dad is too busy making money to take any interest. As the story progresses and their greed kicks in, they know what is going on and really are as guilty of child abuse as the film director and his team, and their cry of 'But we love you' would be laughable if it weren’t so empty of love. Disbelieved by the police, abandoned by their parents, the tragic end of the tale comes almost as a relief.

The children are the only characters in the story that we see ‘full-bodied’ as it were, and they are portrayed by two puppets, excellently manipulated by Sara Kirkpatrick and Kat Damvoglou. The adults are played by actors and we only see part of their bodies (never their heads), their voices (pre-recorded) being provided by other actors. It is an unusual technique but, in this case, very effective.

This was a most powerful and moving production, and also an important one in bringing to our attention the exploitation of many children by so-called civilised people. There were a lot of people involved in the play’s development and production; congratulations to them all but especially to Raven Kaliana who wrote the piece (and that must have been a painful job), directed and made the puppets.

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Eclipse Shadow Theatre (now Hit Gelamp)
Madeleine on Tip-Toe
Archway Methodist Hall | Holloway Arts Festival
27 June 2010

Reviewed by Helena Rampley

Based on the story and psychiatric treatment of Madeleine le Bouc (who lived and died over a century ago), Madeleine on Tip-Toe considers differing historical attitudes towards religious fanaticism. Gaunt and balanced on the points of her toes, Madeleine is presented to the audience by Dr Janet; she is ‘trying to touch the ground but the angels won’t let [her]’.

Through shadow puppet sequences and digital projections, we are able to inhabit the visionary world that Madeleine shares with the eleventh century saint, Hildegard of Bingen. Whilst the result of Hildegard’s experience was to be beatified, Madeleine finds herself being cross-examined in a psychiatric hospital by Dr Janet. These scenes are shown partly in front of a screen and partly behind it in silhouette. The latter is undoubtedly the most effective: in the stark contrast between light and shadow, the images of Madeleine’s treatment take on a poignant and sinister edge. When the action is partly obscured from our sight, what we do see becomes a more voyeuristic acquisition, and much more compelling.

The same is true for the start of the piece: Madeleine enters the stage after only the briefest of introductions. There is such mystery surrounding her experience that it is rather disappointing to see so much so early on; if she were shrouded in secrecy for longer, the eventual reveal could wield great power. The space of Archway Methodist Hall also gives the piece a peculiar shape. Whilst the compactness of the space provides a sense of the underground and illicit, the expansiveness of Madeleine’s visions begs a stage on a grander scale.

The visions themselves are flawlessly executed. The puppets are wonderfully dexterous, and their interplay with the coloured, even kaleidoscopic digital images is fresh and inventive. In order to really flourish though, the creative success of this show demands to be matched by the structure of its presentation and the development of the character of Dr Janet.

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Horse + Bamboo Theatre
Little Leap Forward
Barnfield Theatre, Exeter
25 June 2010

Reviewed by Cariad Astles

I saw Little Leap Forward at the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter on a sweltering Friday evening in June. Despite the heat, the theatre was full; the audience  ranged in age from around 2yrs to about 80yrs – with as many adults as children present.

The show tells the story of the character Little Leap Forward – based on the life story of the author of the book of the same title, Guo Yue – living through the Cultural Revolution in China and attempting to retain his individuality, hope and freedom amid the vast political events of the period. The production, designed by Bob Frith and devised and directed by Alison Duddle, was a co-production with Barefoot Books, who published the story, and the Royal Exchange Theatre.

The performance does indeed have the quality of a large picture book slowly turning its pages to let you into the story. Horse + Bamboo’s shows often have this quality of a story unfolding slowly and gently. Images follow images, and you have the sense of a timeless narrative taking place. This is enhanced by the focus on the story of one individual, who struggles to make sense of his world.

The puppets are variously life-sized masked figures, table-top and shadow images. All are operated with skill and clarity. The design evokes the socialist propaganda of the Cultural Revolution and Chinese paper art. The story, which takes a while to unfold, tells of how Little Leap Forward develops his own understanding of liberty and expression following the loss of his mother – who is removed to be re-educated as a better Communist (her crime reading the wrong sort of books) – through friendships and political events. Representing Little Leap Forward’s freedom throughout the show is a caged bird, which he tends and eventually frees. The entire story is without dialogue and is shown through visual imagery.

The performance demonstrates Horse + Bamboo’s commitment to telling unique stories, based on the relationship between individuals and their society. I enjoyed the gentle pace and gradual unfolding of a story which is universal in its simplicity.

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