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Edinburgh Festival Fringe Reviews 2010
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Beccy Smith, Darren East and Emma Leishman unite to cover the glut of puppetry at this year's Edinburgh Fringe

Beccy
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Double Edge Drama
Robbie Wakes
Underbelly
15 August 2010

Director Hal Chambers clearly recognises that puppetry’s a fashionable component of contemporary visual theatre. His glossy production stars an appealing big-eyed puppet – Robbie Whistler – the seven-year old survivor of a terrorist attack on the Tube which killed his mother. It’s an intelligent theatrical premise which takes the heat off the company of school-leaver actors (an all-male cast of twelve from Eton) by essentially casting them all as bit parts in the maelstrom of activity surrounding the young boy's recovery.

We spend one eventful day with Robbie, which catalyses a reunion with his grieving father, and there is some lovely detailed work with this delicate rod puppet, designed by Bea Pentney. Operated by at least two and up to four puppeteers, his fragile animation forms the heart of the piece and places a satisfying emphasis, from a puppetry perspective, upon his physical difficulties and attempt to stand. But the piece is undermined by some uncomfortably uncommitted acting and sits strangely between a participatory and professional presentation. Producing company, Double Edge, claims to have kickstarted the careers of various young actors, presumably all from Eton, but it does the show no favours to imply through its PR that it’s a professional show. The script is slender, with one-dimensional characterisation, especially disappointing for such an expressive puppet, and there's an over-reliance on knowing gags, and the physical languages feel derivative. It’s great to see puppetry placed at the heart of emerging actor training and obviously taken seriously as such, but a sympathetic puppet simply isn’t big enough to compensate for a struggling cast of twelve.

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Crow’s Theatre
I, Claudia
Assembly @ George Street
15 August 2010

There is a lone moment of puppetry in the opening sequence of this one-woman show from Canada, receiving its UK premiere at the Fringe. As a clownish janitor fumbles about the stage setting the show into motion he looks inside his hat, magician style, and a beautiful hand-sized butterfly flexes its wings and flutters tentatively toward the light. I must confess to a current obsession with butterflies and the detail and thoughtfulness of this small piece of animation – no randomly bouncing butterfly on a fishing rod here – seemed to bode well for the show ahead.

And how right the instinct proved! This mask performance masterfully combined a beautifully developed character-driven script with a refined, detailed physical performance that fully embodied the play’s series of complex character studies. Following the discoveries of an all-too-recognisable teen grappling with the realities of her parents' divorce, each new character – her father’s controversial girlfriend, her grandfather and the ex-Artistic Director-cum janitor – redefined the story. Cumulatively, this painted a hugely empathetic picture of our heroine’s endearing solipsism and the complicated emotional battles that underpin family life.

Although the butterfly metaphor of a self-avowedly unattractive girl cocooned in her own pubescent thoughts undergoing a transformation was a little over-pushed in the writing, this was a gem of a show. Its confident theatricality effectively combined material and physical theatre, bringing together the best of the magic of one world with the sophisticated emotional realities of the other.

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Idle Motion

Vanishing Horizon
Zoo Roxy
17 August 2010

The third show from Oxford-based company Idle Motion takes the history and the metaphor of flight to inform a beautifully mobile stagecraft that transports a host of objects into new lives.

Suitcases have become a bit of a devised theatre cliché in recent years, but with a sound dramaturgical basis in a show that takes place largely in airports through the ages, the company have ingeniously converted them into pop-up props for every occasion – a mini-bar; a tiny washroom. In their wit these miniature worlds are reminiscent of the pleasures of toy theatre and maintain a level of surprise in the staging that’s enormously satisfying. Elsewhere the company's energetic theatricality seems to take real pleasure in objects – multiples of paper, bakelite radios and tiny lights are used to create panoramic stage pictures that magnify the scale and ambition of the piece. There’s a sensitivity to doubling – connecting animated objects to those worn or held by performers – and to perspective where clever onstage arrangements suggested aerial or side-on views.

This is a young company and they have hit on an effective writing form – combining pseudo radio documentary to beef up thin-but-emotive personal story – that offers a workmanlike breadth of insight to their theme: the history of female ‘aviatrixes’ and the impulse to adventure. The acting needs greater maturity to carry such narrative weight, but the object-led stagecraft is employed with sincerity, inventiveness and exuberance and powers the piece home.

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Tortoise in a Nutshell
The Last Miner
Hill Street Theatre
18 August 2010

Our reviewer Darren East wasn’t entirely convinced by Tortoise in a Nutshell’s 2009 offering – Twine – but with a substantial development period and mentoring support from renowned young people’s company Catherine Wheels, this young Scottish company have created a very special production for this year’s fringe. The Last Miner is a profoundly moving and thoughtful piece of puppet theatre. Transforming the theatre into a disused mine, with a series of stage platforms disguised as coal outcrops and even the floor lights resting in nuggets of coal, the company create a hugely atmospheric space supported by an evocative score and sensitive lighting led by helmet lamps worn above their dirt-besmirched faces.

This two-hander creates a very complete world and tone that seems to lament the loss of an industrial culture rarely portrayed in contemporary theatre – and with enormous maturity for such a young company (this is their third production). There are no words, but as we follow the real or imagined explorations of the last miner through this kingdom he is accompanied by a near-constant grammelot comprised of machinery creaks and the wittering of his sole companion, the bright yellow feather of a canary.

The pace of the show is steady – little happens. The space is explored, memories are evoked of lost friends, past celebrations and loves. There are some beautifully skilled moments of puppetry and the piece is underpinned by powerful choices – the reappearance of a faithful horse recalled through the texture and sound of a sweeping brush whose appearance and disappearance takes on a deftly ritual feel; shifts from sadness to lightness and hope just enough to completely spellbind the audience. Technically this is beautiful work – with dynamically effective use of shadows and incredibly detailed tabletop performance throughout.

The Last Miner is sold as a children’s show and I’m not convinced of this classification – younger children might struggle with the intensity of the piece’s mood and concentration. But as a puppetry performance for adult and young adult audiences this delicate and haunting portrayal is a powerful piece of work.

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CalArts Festival Theater
Silken Veils
Venue 13
18 August 2010

The world premiere of this exploration of sexual politics and recent Iranian history opens with a familiar dramatic moment – a woman in bridal dress sprints alongside the stage and conducts a tense conversation with her husband-to-be ‘outside’. Silken Veils is the story this bride feels she has to tell to explain her actions to her fiancé and to herself. Created by Iranian-American performer, Leila Ghaznavi, the show is a collaboration with puppeteer Chase Woolner, who takes on the role of her fiancé. Other characters appear largely in shadow – literally and metaphorically ‘beyond the veil’ as they act the parts of her departed parents from behind a large screen that makes up the backdrop.

Puppetry is used throughout, not only shadow figures but also both rod and marionettes on stage playing younger versions of the protagonist and her brother, a child soldier killed in the Iranian Revolution. One intriguing staging juxtaposed a static marionette sitting on stage with the same figure, played by an actress in shadow, behind the screen speaking her character’s lines. This proved unexpectedly empowering for the gently breathing marionette. However, more often, on a bare stage, alongside understated physical performance from Ghaznavi, the figures' visual and material power seemed diminished, with their strongest moments in interaction – Ghaznavi relating to her younger self.

The show drew heavily from sexy and emotive Rumi poetry, which offered a metaphorical seam to enrich the complex love affairs of two generations of Iranians. Too often though its approach to puppetry, though competent and varied, was simply illustrative and prosaic.

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Darren

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Fingers Theatre Tbilisi
My Hamlet with Linda Marlowe
Assembly @ George Street
16 August 2010

Fingers Theatre from Georgia, led by Besso Kupreishvili, in 2008 created this show in which a lone actor plays an outsider who gets a surprise chance to be Hamlet, backed by a supporting cast of puppets and five Georgian puppeteers. First time round, a Lithuanian clown played the role; here in Edinburgh Linda Marlowe plays an Eastern European actor who can’t get good parts, and is reduced to cleaning the dressing rooms, until one night the puppets emerge.

Fingers Theatre made their name with work that was performed just with the fingers – classic walking two-finger legs, with tiny costumes – doing intricate dance routines from tango to Michael Jackson. There is some of this specialism on show here, but they have over the years broadened the range to more familiar rod and glove puppets. The whole show features a collision of the quirky and the conventional, in fact, and it’s the wilder, more unusual puppetry – the rodents dancing around the mousetrap scene, Osric creeping in as a rod puppet built from a slinky toy – that is most satisfying.

Although the puppet characters mutter in Georgian to each other, Marlowe voices all their Shakespearean lines. This takes a little getting used to, and along with some awkward added writing (not that it’s ever going to be easy to add speeches to Hamlet) makes the framing narrative a little frustrating. Once we get past the set-up and Marlowe properly lets rip with the Shakespeare, though, everything clicks into place. The show runs little over an hour in total, so this is a heavily edited and reordered text, but (despite some overly histrionic music that sometimes implies we aren’t to be trusted to read the emotional moments for ourselves) all the twists read true and the great speeches get some clever interpretation and resounding delivery, with Marlowe contorting across the set while playing off a host of puppets.

And although the precision and elegance of the manipulation – both of puppets and the staging – by the Georgian puppeteers can’t be faulted, in the most memorable sections Marlowe operated the puppets too; playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a pair of glove puppets, one on either hand pulling at her either ear, or delivering the To be speech to a tragically limp puppet Ophelia, held simply and gently in her hands.

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Jammy Voo
A Corner of the Ocean
Underbelly
17 August 2010

In 2007 Jammy Voo’s Something Blue was a collection of sketches memorable both for transcending the Lecoq-school template it clearly emerged from and for some top-notch puppetry.

This year’s show, revolving around four women with clearly delineated lives but mysteriously overlapping stories, is very different in tone, but the puppetry is still in place. Yngvild Aspeli’s scene of deadly battle with her own surprisingly combative mink stole is perhaps the most technically accomplished piece of puppetry I saw at this year’s Fringe, precision-timed, witty and emotionally charged. A giant torch-lit shadow of a hand first caressed and then danced with the human characters, in another beautiful sequence. At the end, a large figure made of paper, presumably the drowning man whose story echoed through the piece, emerged from the back wall, screaming silently and sinking inexorably. Besides the puppetry, the piece is built from many skills; the human performances are also rich and crafted, there is beautiful live musical accompaniment, highly accomplished singing, and moments of great choreographic synchronicity.

Unfortunately this is all at the service of a piece that disappointingly doesn’t really go anywhere, and so doesn’t quite connect. Everything we see of the four characters is focused on their own situations and idiosyncratic preoccupations; and too many of these are rather too well-worn, and don’t noticeably shift. We’re introduced to all the ingredients but denied the cake.

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Loose Thread Productions
The Ladder and the Moon
C
18 August 2010

This gently earnest children’s show from a young Irish trio, constructed from a sequence of sketches about three young children discovering and playing with the contents of an attic, was a bit sickly sweet. The palette of their childhood characterisation was disappointingly slim, with more than a bit too much unconvincing wide-eyed wonder. It was a shame, too, that easy gender stereotypes (two capable, adventurous boys mooned over by a timid and nervous girl) were unquestioningly reinforced for so much of the show.

And although they devised some strong visual moments, like an early game with bouncing lights, and some bold shadow work, too much of the latter part of the show involved the trio playing brief games with some authentically childlike crude cardboard props. It was understood that they were intentionally channelling a childhood inventiveness, in which we were invited to share their imagined worlds, but there is a distinction that puppeteers need often be aware of between recreation and representation – I don’t think the more constructed imaginings were as fertile for an audience as they’d hoped, often ending prematurely on an initial moment of recognition or the first possible story.

However, there is enough clarity of style in evidence to suggest the company have a commitment to investigating the challenges they set themselves; hopefully next time they’ll find starting points that generate some more dramatic and satisfying material.

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Backhand Theatre
The Love of a Clown
C soco
18 August 2010

Backhand Theatre is a new company, and this their first foray into the Edinburgh Fringe, with a tale of retired clown Jacques, played by Chris Kinahan, who tells us his tragic life story from turn-of-the-century Paris. The artistic director of the company, Jake Linzey, is a puppeteer and he built and operates the variety of puppets who silently play the other characters in Jacques’ reminiscences.

These include Madam Muscat, the old lady at the bar who listens to the clown’s troubles; she is a near-life-size hand and rod puppet and has, unfortunately, a fur coat and hair that are remarkably similar to Linzey’s own hair, so when he operates her with his head almost on her shoulder, she unwittingly threatens to become a two-headed shaggy monster from time to time. Very effective in some stiller moments, she is sadly let down by a lot of unenergised general hand-waving while the clown tells her story, a trait she unfortunately shares with the proprietor of the Grande Cirque, who is otherwise represented neatly as a hat and a cigar. More successful is a loveable shaggy dog puppet who has some sweet scampering doggy moments.

Finally Helena the trapeze artist, the lost love of the clown’s life, takes miniature flight from the trapeze and from the story. It’s a grand gesture in theory but disappointingly clunky in practice and so it doesn’t quite take off, something that could be said for the show as a whole. Kinahan works manfully with a script that alternates the pedestrian and the desperately sentimental – although it would have been good to see some more of Jacques’ acclaimed circus act – but the show struggles to rise above the predictable plot and the wistfully maudlin writing, and the puppetry (although promising from a young company) is neither sharp nor surprising enough to help.

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Kellerman Performing Arts
The Trip to the Moon
Augustine’s
19 August 2010

Kellerman Performing Arts’ Trip to the Moon is an adaptation of Offenbach’s spectacular four-act light opera, first performed in 1875, and not often seen since. Now a three-strong cast, headed by Hans Kellerman, have turned this epic into a chamber-sized piece, running about 45 minutes, that seems to want to be both a home-made SF romance – drawing visually on George Méliès’s film of Jules Verne’s similar story – and a satire on the foibles of political leadership.

That neither objective is quite achieved is no doubt partly due to the piece having been devised in Swedish and most recently performed in French; all the cast struggle slightly with their English lines. There’s also quite a clash between the wild inventiveness of the music and the rather stodgy performances: the centrepiece of the show is a giant machine, described as a nineteenth-century jukebox, which doubles as musical instrument and puppet stage. Among other things it comprises a stringed instrument, automated scene announcement board, and a glockenspiel with each bar wired up to a motorised hammer to allow it to be played from a miniature keyboard. For all that, possibly the most entertaining musical moment had all three cast members playing a set of beautifully tuned bottles.

The songs were at their best when they harnessed Offenbach’s tunes to witty new lyrics, which presumably (impressively!) also exist in two other languages. The puppetry – a combination of bandy-legged 'humanette' figures complete with wigs and helmets for the lead characters, and wheeled crowds for the hoipolloi – was of a strictly amateur if quirkily charming nature. The whole experience stayed just the endearingly bonkers side of ridiculous to brighten a wet morning.

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Maison Foo

The Memoirs of a Biscuit Tin
Pleasance Courtyard
19 August 2010

At heart, this show from Derby-based Maison Foo, a deservedly big hit at this year’s Fringe, tells the story of the life of Mrs Benjamin, an elderly woman whose much-loved husband has died and who has subsequently suffered badly from dementia.

In a winning conceit, the three Maison Foo performers play the house – or rather the Wall, Floor and Chimney of the house – where Mrs Benjamin lived, and from where, at the start of the show, she is (as far as they know) simply missing. Her naive but energetic household fittings uncover her life through the objects she stashed away – notably in a biscuit tin in a microwave – driven by a search to find out what has happened to her. This framing gives pleasing urgency to the unfolding of the life story and makes entirely tangible the governing metaphor of a damaged mind clinging to remnants of memory, resurfacing or reimagined when proper attention is paid to objects and places.

And these recollections are conjured in a whirl of clowning and delicate play with the objects that Mrs Benjamin kept and stashed away and those which surrounded her – everything is pressed into service to tell her stories, often through pleasingly simple and inventive puppetry and object animation. The show has remarkable production values, including what must be one of the Fringe’s most extensive collections of props, all dusty and painted in myriad greys, until flashes of telling colour emerge with moments that need to be particularly marked.

If there are reservations, they are that some of the visual material, although extremely well performed, felt a little familiar. And Mrs Benjamin didn’t quite come to life as a full individual; for all the touching honesty and precision delivery, the events of her life were just a little generic, and she stayed a shared construct of 'old person' rather than an identifiable character. But this is an accomplished and generous show, demonstrating how much we are made from our memories, and all the more made from the sharing of them.

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The River People
Terrible Tales of the Midnight Chorus
Bedlam Theatre
19 August 2010

After winning a Total Theatre Award last year for Lilly Through The Dark, and taking that show on a national tour, The River People are back with a work in development at the International Festival – Little Matter – and this piece at Bedlam. Terrible Tales is a piece of upfront cabaret storytelling, infused with the familiar River People mode of gothic Victoriana. As might be expected, there is intricate multi-operator tabletop puppetry, seamlessly integrated with grotesque human characters and lots of live music.

However, perhaps in part because it’s intended to be played to a mobile audience from a gypsy caravan, here at the theatre the show doesn’t quite rise above being the sum of its parts, a collection of wry and troubling macabre stories, in which those who have seen previous River People work will be sure to recognise some characters and themes. But it also feels a little under-cooked – the stories could use some firmer narratives and some better motivations for the telling, and the framing burlesque storytelling collective some clearer links to each other and the material.

Still, it’s great to see Edward Wren step out of the shadows with his mandolin and command the stage as a roguish storyteller-cum-master-of-ceremonies, backed up by a trio of other musicians. The River People have recruited crack puppeteer Mandy Travis – familiar from many Little Angel shows, and her own company, Lost and Found – who also contributes some forthright saxophone riffs. And it’s the puppetry that delivers the most memorable moments, from the start when a generic protagonist, a faceless tabletop puppet, emerges thrashing from his box to be given a new head for each story; a man drifts away clinging to the moon; and little Sarah sits unravelling in a cupboard, while her puppeteers look sadly on.

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Emma

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Gomito Productions
The Night Keeper
Hill Street Theatre
22 August 2010

The Night Keeper by Gomito Productions is an obvious take on the Ben Stiller film A Night at the Museum, but Gomito’s version is so much better. As I was sitting there in the dark I could feel that bubbling sense of fun and excitement that I used to get in the pit of my stomach as a child when I was watching good theatre. With a set made from recycled items – plastic bags, bottles of all colours and well-used Ikea-style collapsible toy storage bins – this show didn’t need anything other than an audience’s willing imagination. The ensemble of performers burst with energy akin to Playschool presenters and with their fast-paced storytelling they constantly engaged the audience on their adventure into the magical museum following the story of two lost sisters. Some excellent animation and creative use of odd objects gave life to spacemen, dinosaurs and even Napoleon. I would have loved this as a kid and it still tickled my fancy as an adult.

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Theatre of Widdershins
Arabian Nights
Scottish Storytelling Centre
22 August 2010

Arabian Nights: The Lost Tales of Sheherazade was a perfect piece of theatre for the Scottish Storytelling Centre, with Andy Lawrence, the solo performer of the show, an obvious born storyteller. It was easy to see why this show was a definite crowd pleaser, especially with so many children in attendance – the colourful props and puppets were beautifully made, enticing the audience to want to play with them; I felt like a kid at Hamleys Toy Shop. Unfortunately the three narratives, told like Arabian night fables, lacked in sustaining action and often felt anticlimactic. Disappointingly, there was a distinct deficiency of creative animation or manipulation. However, the children present found this to be an entertaining show.

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Bunk Puppets and Scamp Theatre
Sticks, Stones, Broken Bones
Underbelly, Cowgate
23 August 2010

'And remember, there’s always time to play' – the mantra of Jeff Achtem from Sticks, Stones, Broken Bones, which in retrospect really set the tone for my whole puppet theatre Fringe programme. Sticks, Stones, Broken Bones was a very clever demonstration of how you can make shadow puppets from a balloon, a funny wig and a few pieces of sticky tape. Mixing puppetry ingenuity with buffoon-style clowning, performer Jeff Achtem created puppets in 'drive-thru' fashion from a glove and some foam. In the flesh the puppets looked like a hodgepodge of household items; in silhouette they became alive and Achtem used every part of his body – going to extreme physical lengths to use both his hands and feet to produce an endearing scene of chess played by an old married couple. His sense of play and delight was infectious and this kind of irreverent, improvised show is perfect in a fringe programme – but would need a stronger narrative to develop into a full-length production.

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