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Beverley Puppet Festival 2010

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Bob Frith and Alison Duddle tag team a review of Beverley Puppet Festival


Saturday – Alison

One of the most wonderful things about visiting a festival is the community of puppeteers that gather at each event, enjoying each others’ work, and so when I arrived at Beverley Leisure Centre and was greeted with a host of familiar and friendly faces, I knew it would be fun whatever I saw.

I would certainly have wanted to see Chicken Licken had I not just seen it the weekend before. It is, for me, DNA’s best show – simple, silly, and a good balance of storytelling and music, and Mark Whitaker, a wonderful performer, brings a real freshness to it.

The first show of my day was Goldilocks by Hand to Mouth Theatre – a good start. I discovered the show was one of the first they ever made, but it had aged well – the bears were sweet, Martin Bridle’s hand puppet sequences were (as you’d expect) slick and funny, and Su Eaton’s live music was well performed and added to the storytelling. The children I sat next to were completely drawn into the story, the humour being pitched perfectly for their age group. The little boy sitting next to me laughed so hysterically and infectiously at the wiggly worm puppets that started the story that I couldn’t fail to laugh alongside him.

From there I dashed over to Armstrong’s Social Club to catch Treasure Trove’s The Story of the Willow Pattern Plate. It had some nicely made puppets, but Martin Bridle’s hand-puppet technique is a hard act to follow.

Having seen Lempen Puppet Theatre’s Rainbow Forest before I thought I’d explore Beverley a bit, and loved looking around the Minster. Lempen’s show pushes one-handed puppetry to its limit – with high production values and a lovely reveal moment through the gauze curtain.

Upstairs at the Friary a very tightly packed audience enjoyed Sea Legs Puppets’ Ugly Duckling. Some really sweet puppets (in particular a lovely flock of swans) combined with a nicely designed set really gave the show a strong visual identity. It didn’t shy away from the emotional content of the story and allowed us the time to be as transported by the swans as the duckling was.

The highlight of my weekend was certainly seeing Stephen Mottram’s The Seed Carriers. How I have managed not to see it until now, I’m not sure – I think I had expected something drier, technically impressive but dull. How wrong I was. It was absolutely riveting. The packed audience at Armstrong’s Social Club strained to see the subtly lit snatches of dystopian vision that Stephen Mottram presented. Vulnerable human-like creatures scuttle across the stage. Oppressive beings snatch them up and harvest them for the treasures they contain. Trapped creatures writhe in gauze sacks that hang around the space, and others are set in treadmills, generating energy for the oppressive world above. The only glimpses of hope come in the form of the inventive beings that adapt in order to survive – one arm-stilting human protected by an armadillo’s shell, another leaning backwards to take the form of a chicken – and in the mysterious, inviting pond.

Yes, the craft was astonishing, both in terms of how his beautifully sculpted ‘movement machines’ were built and the skill of the manipulation which allowed the audience to believe, despite the puppeteer’s presence, in the creatures’ independent life. But what was so refreshing was that the show was about something. It existed for more than the puppetry. It made me feel, it made me think, it made me care. It inspired me. That’s about as much as you can ever want from a piece of artwork.

I went home happy and filled up with puppets, wondering how I can weave a little crawling marionette into our next show.

Sunday – Bob

I set out from Lancashire on a gloomy, damp, unfairly grey day but almost two hours later, arriving in Beverley, the sun was shining, the air was dry. A good start – so I aimed for the Minster which rose over the town and from there on to the Friary where the tell-tale signs of groups of parents and young children signalled that I had arrived at the hub of the festival. The Friary gardens make a lovely place for people to gather and a safe place for children to play and watch the free shows that are on offer.

I had to rush almost immediately into the first show – Stories on a Shoestring by Objects Dart. Simply staged in a rather drab room and lit by just one birdie, Drew Colby used an old cloth, pegs, carrier bags and other found objects to tell a story that drew on familiar fairytales and played to twenty children from two years old, plus their parents. At its best it was inventive and refreshing, and kept the young children focused – enjoying the simple magic of a carrier bag transformed from a sunny washing-line into a cloud and a tree in quick succession.

Then a quick trip to the Minster to say hello to the stone musicians, grotesques, and dignitaries, not forgetting Reynard the Fox; all of which then seemed to come to life as I walked down Minster Moorgate and found well over 100 people of all ages enjoying Piggery Jokery by Hand to Mouth Theatre. A perfectly put-together entertainment accompanied by hurdy-gurdy that captures the atmosphere of the Middle Ages with wit, charm and a light touch – not unlike the carvings in the Minster...

Then back to the Friary YHA where the lawns were now full of games and the marquee queue for face-painting had grown into a sizeable crocodile.

Around 2.30 I somehow got lost en route to The Lost Forest at Armstrong’s Social Club. I had to find my way through a bevy of beer drinkers before discovering a hot and muggy backroom where Anna Ingleby of Indigo Moon (and Beverley Festival's director) had set up her show. A colourful use of projections (operated by Haviel Perdana, who also wrote the music) drives along a straightforward eco-fable of exploitation and destruction. A slightly unusual combination of formal wayang golek puppets alongside photographic images takes time to adjust to, and the audience interaction started slowly but once it got into its stride the children clearly enjoyed the slapstick elements and the final comeuppance dished out to the villainous Endorro.

Then off back to the Friary to see my second Objects Dart show, Salt. As I sat among the audience I overheard enthusiastic comments about the Festival from a group of visitors who, like me, were (sometimes literally) running from venue to venue. The Seed Carriers and Storm in a Teacup seemed to be particular favourites.

Salt, like the earlier show, again used very simple lights and sound. Drew had to work hard with the very bright, sharp kids who sat at the front – 'salt – it’s bad for your health' – but he was clearly at ease in this kind of situation. Like the earlier show, the piece is at its best when the objects are allowed to really transform in our imagination... when a straightforward wrapped sweet becomes a precious jewel, for example.

I rushed off next to the utilitarian space of the Leisure Centre to see Noisy Oyster's The Cat That Walked by Himself, but was first treated to a short showing of The Big Surprise, flat-bed puppets projected from two OHPs. This was a cartoon-like story about an alien gorging him-(her-?)self during a short visit to earth. It benefited from having the puppeteers visible in front of the projection screen, so this very simple story was enhanced by watching the puppeteers managing the subtleties of the OHP puppets, screens and dimmers.

In the company’s main show The Cat That Walked by Himself, however, the puppeteers were entirely enclosed in a booth and the effect was almost indistinguishable from watching a cartoon film, which was a loss. However, the puppets were undeniably beautifully drawn and cut, especially those that used black, white and greys and they were a pleasure to watch.

Finally I returned to the Friary lawns for tea and biscuits and watched a free show by Companie Via Cane, from Brittany, with their stick marionette show Les Tringles, played in medieval troubadour style, fittingly in a garden under the shadow of the Minister.

Alison & Bob

In summary a good weekend, when the few showers could be ignored or ducked and cakes, games and free entertainments could be readily enjoyed on the lawns and gardens of the Friary – quite apart from the sixteen or more puppet shows on offer. The Beverley Arts Trust, and Anna Ingleby especially, have to be commended for their hard work and effort in making this such a popular festival.

When compared with the Friary’s ambience the main performance venues each left something to be desired, and that must be of real concern to the organisers and it’s a sad reflection that a town the size of Beverley doesn’t appear to have a decent theatre venue suited to puppetry. But the enthusiastic response of audiences and the coming together of so many puppeteers and their followers have created a biennial event that we wish well in what looks like being a difficult future for us all.

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Established in 2005 by Anna Ingleby (Indigo Moon) with the assistance of John Turner (Christian Aid / Beverley Fairtrade Group),  Beverley Puppet Festival is now a biennial event. The fourth edition was held 16-18 July 2010.

Bob Frith and Alison Duddle are the artistic directors of Horse + Bamboo Theatre. www.horseandbamboo.org

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Top image strip left to right: Hand to Mouth Theatre, Piggery Jokery; Stephen Mottram, The Seed Carriers; Objects Dart, Stories on a Shoestring; DNA, Chicken Licken.

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