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REVIEWS: Spring 2011...

/ Folded Feather, Life Still
/ Shona Reppe, Cinderella / Olga Volt The Electric Fairy
/ Wild Theatre, The Selkie Bride
/ Horse and Bamboo Theatre, Little Red Riding Hood

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Folded Feather
Life Still
Little Angel Theatre, London
22 March 2011

Reviewed by Matt Jackson

Folded Feather's Life Still is fortunately self-proclaimed as an 'absurd piece of abstract science fiction...' –  otherwise one could make the mistake of faulting them for this. The piece did lack a strong narrative thread, appearing to be many workshopped scenarios linked together to produce a full production, but the discontinuities were soon forgiven.  The technical artistry throughout confirmed Folded Feather's Oliver Smart and Matt Short as ambitious, multi-disciplined artists, and kept us continually interested in what might come next.

The opening sequence is a lovely blend of projected film layered with live shadow work, which then gives way to an object-strewn, raised stage. This platform is the setting for a catastrophic landscape (microphoned to create a live soundscape) where hands begin to crawl over mechanical debris, reassembling the pieces into a weathered cart. A pair of worn boots arrives, independent of body, and pulls the cart across the stage like a ghost. This early scene showcases a moment of effective object manipulation and imagination, but was soon over, and I was left wondering why they killed this character so quickly after the long build-up. Similarly, a collapsible stretcher comes to life, bursting into a gracefully leaping personality that quickly leaps... off stage.

Folded Feather's charm is in their character development and manipulation, and the first moment of outright connection comes in a duel between two sack-like chickens fighting for a spot on the stage. Their climatic confrontation wonderfully sums up post-disaster confusion and competition for salvaged remains. Later a surprise character of a 'floating wizard' appears – his section seemingly disjointed from the rest, but excused for its sheer charm. Through the rubble, this magical entity rebuilds a city as the scenography returns to the projector and we are left with shadows of new towers pointing to the sky. Though presumably not intended, this abstract piece links well to reality with the last building's image closely resembling the World Trade Center Towers, and the rubbish piles reminiscent of the unfortunate recent devastation in Japan. 

Time Out once declared that if puppetry were to become the next rock-n-roll, then the company Blind Summit would be thefrontmen. If so, then perhaps Folded Feather are the cult-hit indie rockers – as critically acclaimed, just less mainstream and choosing intimate venues over daunting arenas. 

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Shona Reppe
Cinderella / Olga Volt The Electric Fairy
Barbican, London | bite 11
24 February 2011 / 4 March 2011

Reviewed by Eleanor Margolies

Cinderella is a little scrap of a thing, a tabletop puppet no more than six inches high, with unruly hair and a skirt made of hessian and yellow dusters. She’s wordless, grubby and snotty. Her step-sisters cram themselves into stretch satin gloves with marabou trim to sneer and prance. They subject Cinderella to real tortures, dunking her headfirst into a bucket of dirty water, holding her over a fire and out of the window. Her father is unseen: his footsteps pass without a word.

All this takes place on an ingenious set, a curved counter reminiscent of a 1950s Scots-Italian ice-cream parlour or, with its numerous hidden compartments, a fantasy dressing table. Trapdoors open onto unseen rooms and things – a yappy dog, a flickering stove. There’s an unpretentious surrealism to the tilted perspective and mixed-up sizes which is in sympathy with children’s play: a standard lamp is an Alp for the young domestic drudge to climb, and when Cinderella hides from her stepsisters, she’s simply tucked into a drawer. Everything is beautifully made and conceived.

Shona Reppe, the designer and solo puppeteer, begins the piece among the audience, dusting heads and lapels, a chic housekeeper with tongue in cheek. Later, she transforms herself into a fairy godmother, popping Cinderella into a leopard print ‘magic handbag’ trimmed with a red sequin heart. She makes an engaging attempt to entertain us while we wait for Cinderella to return from the ball, performing a daft ‘magic trick’ with a Jaffa cake. She is a fashionable young godmother, who delights, indulges and teases us as her charges, commenting dryly as Cinderella slips out through the front door to the sound of carriage wheels, ‘What a shame you can’t see it.’ The show is transporting – a four-year-old sitting in front of me, passionately involved, pointed her finger to show Cinderella where the stepsisters had hidden the invitation to the ball – and is infused with a playful, old-fashioned glamour, complete with easy-listening music and hand-jiving.

Reppe’s charm also infuses Olga Volt The Electric Fairy. Seeing both solo shows within a week (as programmed by the Barbican), there’s a risk of over-dosing on this very quality. Where Cinderella plays with implication, and unhurriedly develops small moments through puppetry, assuming – quite correctly – that the audience knows the story inside out, Olga Volt, with its unfamiliar tale, relies more on the performer’s relationship with the audience.

We’re ushered into a circus tent where the electric fairy – a humanette in an enormous crinoline – performs her act, lighting up unplugged electrical appliances with a flash of her fingertips. Suddenly something blows; the lights go out; there’s a huge crash. Out of the darkness, a warm voice reassures us, ‘Nothing is broken. Not even me.’ The crinoline opens up to become a backstage tent where we meet Olga. She’s descended from Lucia Volt, a star who fell to earth from the constellation ‘Osram’, and so has a very personal relationship with electricity, drinking glasses of light for refreshment. Olga tells us the story of her family, showing souvenirs, blurry snaps and skating trophies – each with an accompanying anecdote about the romantic inventors and adventurers who married the Volt women. It’s a magical realist history of technology which takes in the north pole, the silent cinema and Russia’s Star City.

Olga’s confidential but brisk attitude to the audience is compelling and unsettling, rather in the manner of certain elderly relatives. She approves of her astronaut great-great-grandmother’s practice of applying lipstick in outer space – ‘It’s important to be glamorous at all times’ – and dispatches ill-fated ancestors with a shrug:  ‘That’s life.’

At the end of her story, Olga is summoned to perform her act once again. Her wig and wand are replaced, her smile is refulgent. This time, all goes well, but one can’t help hoping that the electric fairy will some day escape the circus to go on her own adventures. 

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Wild Theatre
The Selkie Bride
Little Angel Theatre, London
24 February 2011

Reviewed by Jeremy Bidgood

Wild Theatre invites us into a 'magically evoked' life under the sea and there are moments of magic in this show, especially in the design of the puppets, courtesy of Lyndie Wright, but as a whole it is too long and lacks pace and the beauty of the puppets is not always replicated in their manipulation.

The show tells the story of the mythical Selkie, a seal who at the full moon can shed her skin and become human. During a storm she meets a fisherman who rescues her and marries her, but after several years of marriage the call of the sea is too strong and the Selkie returns to her seal form promising to visit her husband every full moon.

The show starts with some wonderfully evocative live sound effects but takes too long to get going. The children in the audience clearly lost focus during the longer sections of exposition but were entranced by the visuals and delighted in the slapstick humour of the puppets, especially the seagull hand puppet.

The seal puppets were a highlight, beautifully made from stuffed leather and well manipulated. The leather skin of the Selkie puppet by contrast gave her a slightly sinister aesthetic and as an adult watching the show there was something uncomfortable about the differential in scale between the old fisherman and the very childlike (both in looks and manner) Selkie.

There were also issues around the Selkie's manipulation which lacked conviction and gravity when she was vertical (too many saggy knees) and she tended to float between parts of the stage. This stopped the manipulation of the house scenes from feeling rhythmically distinct from the underwater scenes – a problem when they are being enacted in the same stage space.

There were, however, moments of pure entertainment – the ransacking of the fisherman's house by the confused Selkie – and beauty: the haunting final image of a ghost-like shadowy seal swimming into the depths.

Overall, the show is too long with too much exposition but not enough development of the relationship between the Selkie and the fisherman (years magically pass during the interval, during which the Selkie learns English and to love her husband),  but if the quality of the best aspects of the design and stagecraft of this show were replicated throughout this would indeed be a magical seaside tale.

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Horse and Bamboo Theatre
Little Red Riding Hood
The Boo, Rossendale
12 December 2011

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

Horse and Bamboo’s first foray into the adaptation of a classic fairytale revels in a delicious combination of the scary and the playful. Drawing from the tale’s rich history and multiple readings, including the Norse myth of spring’s escape from winter’s jaws (in which the Little Red’s red hood represents the stolen sun), Alison Duddle’s treatment steps delicately amongst various interpretations to create a deceptively simple telling that nonetheless resonates with symbolism and menace.

The two performers, Jonny Quick and Frances Merriman, are the anchors that carry us through the production’s diverse storytelling approaches and techniques. Jonny is always hungry – the show almost doesn’t begin as he wants to nip out for a sausage roll, whilst Frances is excited to share her collection of all things red. Her most treasured possession: a tasty pink-iced bun become an edible symbol of the protagonist she puppets, it’s delicious demise threatened, or promised, from the start. These two characters and their careful positioning in-between the dramatic and storytelling worlds offered an easy point of entry to the material and to the performance’s conventions.

The production moved easily between miniature theatre, mask work, rod puppetry, shadow, film, song and storytelling: it offered a wonderful introduction to some of the pleasures and surprises of visual theatre (of which for me the company’s mask work begins to feel the most staid). These shifts in mode allowed the story at times to touch on the real darkness of the fairytale's threat. As an echoing sound effect that far outscales the apparent safety of a miniature home where Red Riding Hood is tucked up in bed, or an unseen animated shadow trailing her through the woods and able to completely disappear behind trees, the wolf exudes genuine menace which sent children scurrying back to their seats (Loz Kaye’s score really contributed to the creeping sense of horror). As Jonny Quick with a wiggly extended furry nose gleefully stuffing a cake into his mouth the menace was contained, though perhaps more performatively subversive in its implications.

All in all, this was a thoughtful, exciting and playful production. Playing to sell-out audiences in the company’s own venue, The Boo, which hasn’t long been able to offer public performances, Little Red Riding is a wonderful offer to local Lancashire audiences. Horse and Bamboo are to be congratulated for demonstrating just what a rich and welcoming experience visual theatre can offer to new audiences.

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