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REVIEWS: Winter 2010/2011...

Kazuko Hohki, The Great Escape (A Borrower’s Tale)
• rouge28 Theatre, Urashima Taro
Matthew Robins, Flyboy is alone again this Christmas
• Lyngo Theatre, Snow Play
• 1927, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets
• Oily Cart, Mole in the Hole
• ENO with Complicite, A Dog's Heart
Neil Bartlett and Handspring Puppet Company, Or You Could Kiss Me


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Kazuko Hohki
The Great Escape (A Borrower’s Tale)
BAC, London
18 December 2010

Reviewed by Kati Francis

As we are initiated into the world of BIN (Borrower’s International Network), furnished with lab coats and glasses and sung to about the philosophy of ‘Happiness for Everyone’, the kooky world of Miss Hohki’s team and her quest to protect and publicise the existence of the ‘small people who borrow our things’ envelops us.

BAC is the perfect location for this immersive quest piece as we are led up and down staircases hiding artefacts to find, in and out of experimentation rooms with models of contraptions and demonstrations of lifestyle, and through an attic installation of wonders to discover and record in our tiny spy books. Our involvement was imperative in BIN’s quest to first track and then save the Borrowers from the KBD (Keep Borrowers Down). Our commitment was taken to the limits as we cheered the climactic escape of Bob (the communicative Borrower): banging on our bottle top cymbals, plucking our elastic-band-olins, waving off the helium balloons of the BEEK (Borrower Emergency Escape Kit) from the snow covered steps.

The edgy atmosphere and slight dream-like quality of the piece gave a depth to the scientific world of investigations as chromatic melodies played on music boxes and biscuit-tin-banjos told of the mysterious world that exists beneath out feet.

The details of the models and innovation of the constructions gave a real integrity to what could have been a rather dated whimsical subject. The whole cast worked together to create an understated theatricality, which relied on a belief in this oddball world, not on any empty spectacle to draw the young viewers in. The smitten Miss Hohki – in charge of procedures and captivated by Bob – was very convincing as head of BIN. Her accent was however a little too thick to be the primary communicator of an entire world to a group of slightly hyperactive Christmas-crazed children. The text could have been shared with her support cast more to give shifting focus and greater clarity of lines. The integrated drama of her obsession and the internal power struggle of BIN gave the action further authenticity and agency.

This was a fun afternoon of exploration and imagination, underlined with a motto of equality, anti-materialism and altruism. It could easily have been a bit thin, but instead I found myself wanting more time to explore the ‘exhibition centre’ and wanting to hear the hypnotic songs again. No corners were cut in this full multimedia, multi-sensory experience that seeped into the rest of my day as I got home to find my own BIN kit had been slipped into my pocket!

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rouge28 Theatre
Urashima Taro
Rich Mix, London
18 December 2010

Reviewed by Matt Jackson

While Urashima Taro might be billed as a solo piece, behind puppeteer Aya Nakamura is director Paul Piris with an ensemble of artists and designers. In order for a team like this to create a successful production, they must be in communication at all times otherwise the pieces of the puzzle don't fit in the end. A similar awareness and dialogue is also sought on stage between the puppets and the puppeteer in what the company has coined 'co-presence'.

Paul described 'co-presence' with the example that Aya's role is not merely as puppeteer, but that she's one of them, she's equal in their world. Aya proficiently alternates between manipulator and actor while bringing each character convincingly to life. With eyes that make true contact, an old woman examines a paper puppet that Aya then examines, and when the young fisherman leans into Aya for a kiss it is Aya as manipulator that politely restrains him. This sincere puppetry is the heart of the production as Aya is capable, much like in classic mask work, of dramatically changing the mood of the human-sized characters with very subtle changes of the head and posture. Her fluid manipulation and ever-changing role reminded me of the late Hoichi Okamoto of Dondoro Theatre. I was surprised to learn that Aya was only slightly familiar with this fellow Japanese puppeteer after a closing scene in which a puppet's mask was removed revealing Aya's puppet double resembled a typical Dondoro transformation.

Urashima Taro did suffer slightly with a different kind of 'co-presence', the presence of both live and digital representations. For logistical reasons, a large video of the paper theatre is simultaneously projected, and pre-recorded text, music, and shadows are used throughout. All are well produced, though distracting to Aya's live voice work and manipulation. Even the music often began as a simple melody only to become a busier synthesised piece. It is in these digitised moments that a distance was created from the live environment, with a spectator even noting in the post-show discussion a certain 'disconnected' feeling from the production.

rouge28's true magic is in the simple moments. In a particularly striking scene, a small boat is freed from the paper theatre and slowly sails through the set to the far end of the projection screen, crawling behind, becoming a new shadow. This lovely transition from one theatrical world to another truly exemplifies rouge28's potential for creating successful 'co-presence': between the actors and the audience.

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Matthew Robins
Flyboy is alone again this Christmas
Barbican Centre, London
16 December 2010

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

The overhead projector (OHP), once a staple of classrooms and lecture halls around the world, is now a bit of a technological relic, replaced by interactive whiteboards, laptops and data projectors. Were, however, the OHP to go the way of the laserdisc player and the Polaroid camera it would be a major blow to the world of shadow puppetry, as demonstrated by Matthew Robins’ charming entertainment Flyboy is Alone Again This Christmas, a compilation of 14 musical puppet plays and a few additional songs.

Other puppet forms are represented in this evening-length anthology of queer science fiction tales ‘for adults and brave children’, as the publicity would have it. There are a few bits for paper theatre projected live. I liked especially Nosferatu & Me, which combined cardboard figures with pop-up sets and video. In this short musical play on the collision of the mundane and the supernatural, a figure representing Robins and Murnau’s vampire go biking together, visit the zoo, watch a DVD and almost have a fling. There is also a piece of rough string puppetry titled The Littlest Stag, in which a small stag is adopted by the Queen, and a hand puppet piece about Walter Knitty, who hatches two dinosaur eggs.

But it is the lo-tech magic of the OHP puppetry, featuring the mutant Flyboy, his mutant friend (and unfulfilled love interest) Mothboy and various sci-fi types (the Devil, aliens, a socially awkward Robot) and animals, that really carries the evening. All of the pieces are half-sung and half-spoken by Robins, who fashioned and directed the puppets operated by Tim Spooner, wrote the Danny Elfman-esque music and plays keyboard instruments as he directs the seven-piece live band. The puppetry moves at a fast pace in cinematic fashion, with special scenic effects, articulated figures, panoramas, reveals and variation of perspective and distance.

Robins oozes quirky charm in his singing and storytelling and in the cantankerousness of his asides. He advertises a glow-in-the-dark souvenir badge which is ‘on sale somewhere in the building’, though he doesn’t know where. He provides a ‘Fox News’ update – which turns out to be a running joke for his regulars about a fox who brings presents to his door. He discusses a ‘horrible and intrusive’ photo shoot; the disturbing bomb sounds of Blackwatch, the National Theatre of Scotland’s show running concurrently in the Barbican; his anger at being described as ‘odd’ and ‘weird’ in the press; getting ‘wound up’ after a woman at the show last night stole some shadow figures, meaning he had to spend his day off cutting out more. He gently encourages audience participation – with sing-along choruses and an intermission dinosaur-making contest – but is never dogmatic or strident.

It is a rare treat to be welcomed into this unapologetically fantastic world of Robins’ imagination, haunted by the ghosts of snowmen, spaceships, dinosaur movies and ravenous wolves. Coming out of the Barbican into the cold and dark streets of London, I felt like I was 9 years old, all over again.

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Lyngo Theatre
Snow Play

Lyric Hammersmith, London
12 December 2010

Reviewed by Kati Francis

Snow Play is exactly that – lots of fun and games with ‘snow’. From feathers spiralling out of umbrellas, to fluff stuck on a coat to transform man into snowman, Lyngo have thought of many ingenious ways to bring snow onto the stage and cause delight for their young viewers (aged 2-7).

The simple plot sees the earnest Mr Green returning from holiday to find that the pipe-smoking, dozy Mr White has taken up residence in his house and is leaving snow and coldness everywhere he treads. From this premise Lyngo create a series of innovative visuals punctuated with witty exchanges between the two stubborn ‘seasons’. The super-simple set of a chair, light-fitting, tree and door-frame are continually transformed into various states of ‘snowiness’ with the help of two female ‘innocents’ – audience plants who were very convincing as awkward bystanders to this continuing altercation. It wasn’t until they began fetching props from under seats that I realised they were actually part of the cast! As the children watch the white quilting rolled over the space, the Christmas lights encase the tree and they are invited to hurl white-sock-snowballs onto the stage. They delight in the moments of light fun and sensory play.

The whole play comes to a rather abrupt end after abut 30 minutes when the snowball fight comes to a head and Mr Green brings on a giant snowball as a final threat to get Mr White to leave his house. After deciding against throwing it, Mr Green reaches into the cold mass to pull out a green jumper – he puts it on and the flowers and butterflies flock to him as Mr White flies off as a blackbird glove puppet – another magical picture unfolding before our eyes.

The rest of the hour is filled with the children being invited to make their own Christmas tree decoration with glue, stickers and of course ‘snow’. My small companion loved being invited on stage, both during the performance and afterwards to create her decoration, but I couldn’t help but wish for a fuller story. Lyngo are so adept at weaving the audience into their creation that I was a bit disappointed. It was a jolly little piece, but with ten minutes more of plot I think the story could have reached deeper into its themes of balance and compromise and taken the relationship between the characters to a more absurd climax before a stronger denouement. This is a festive bite of fun which could be developed into a full roast, but at the moment feels like all the trimmings with a slightly bony bird.

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1927
The Animals and Children Took to the Streets
BAC, London
11 December 2010

Reviewed by Penny Francis

The production was a success – the audience clearly loved it; but it was the sort of production so bound up with its visuals that it’s difficult to describe in words or to explain why it was so good – which it undoubtedly was.

First, it was unlike any other show I’ve seen. On entering the theatre we were confronted with a wide set on three screens: glimmering stars over an urban skyline of apartment blocks and churches; a roughly-sketched tryptych. There was music (live, I think) played throughout on a single xylophone or a piano. The mood was serious but charming; the period was the twenties, the aesthetic that of the silent movies. The sets were cinematic projections, and in the beginning the action panned from a pretty townscape to the slums of the same town – the ‘Bayou’ slums – where cockroaches and other nasties crawled up the walls and at night feral children (cut-out silhouettes) came out to create mayhem. The mood had changed. We were being shown the underbelly of the city, where the wolf (a terrifying, metamorphosing shadow figure) is always at the door.

All this was shown through a mixture of media: three white-faced, straitlaced actors; the animated sets, painted and drawn, which the actors treated as though they were three-dimensional; silhouette puppets; songs as narration, and of course the piano. The story concerned a genteel young woman (an actor) and her well-behaved daughter (an animated cut-out) and their horrified introduction to the Bayou tenement where they have come to stay.

The story and all the illustration of it was full of wit and invention: the performers changed roles and entered or emerged from the set, with exactly choreographed movement and perfectly timed and placed projections.

This was no fuzzy-edged experiment or work-in-progress: it was meticulously crafted and professionally finished in every detail. The director (also one of the three performers) was Suzanne Andrade, the film and animation by Paul Barritt. A second performer was Esme Appleton (who was, with Sarah Munro, responsible for the costuming), and the third was Lillian Henley who wrote and played the music. Jo Crowley produced.

1927 has, I think, blazed a trail. It should be a long one, stretching into the future.

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Oily Cart
Mole in the Hole
Unicorn Theatre, London
5 December 2010

Reviewed by Kati Francis

From the moment we were adorned with mole or rabbit hats, introduced to mole ‘family members’ on the photo wall, serenaded by a soft jazzy saxophone and invited to follow the snail trail past boxes of textures and smells, through tunnels, over bridges and into the underground hole, it was clear that we were in professional and caring hands. Oily Cart seems to push at what its young audience can discover through its work, rather than simply presenting or performing a show. Opportunities were constantly created for children to get involved in the mission of the moles to find the great glow-worm who might help solve the problem of the ‘non-glowing-worms’ that usually light their hole. Torches were handed out, burrowing and singing was shared and everything from glitter to water spritzers were innovatively employed to create a piece of total theatre engaging all the senses of the 3-6 year olds that the piece was aimed at. And yet there was no smoke and mirrors, no cheesy smiles or over-projected voices; every suggestion asked for was taken seriously and acted on. The softness of the performances gave the space a feeling of intrigue, leaving the children to draw out the magic and wonder for themselves: a brave and necessary position to take in these days of TV visual-assault and sense-deprivation.

The setting – soft surfaces, woven twigs and lanterns in tin cans with various openings and platforms to allow puppets, props and performers to slip in and out – was warm and mesmerising, enveloping us all within the underground world. The attention to detail was that of a highly planned art installation, taking care to involve all parts of the body and mind.

Simple rod and glove puppets were used for a variety of creatures that the moles meet on their travels from snails to bats and glow-worms, as well as the baby mole, Millie. All were very competently manipulated by Caroline Partridge, who also produced a delightful range of voices. The puppets fitted in with the soft-furnishing feel; bold and simple, but they could have been more textured, as they seemed a little flat in contrast to the sets and costumes. Their integration into the playing space and action, however, was superb. Wheeled around in a pram, hanging down from the roof or popping up through hatches, the puppets enlivened the set and kept the audience engaged.

One of my favourite devices was the simple use of surround-sound audio and the manipulating of the glow-worms’ lights, creating the effect of the worms speaking en masse throughout the space, drawing us in even further.

Interwoven with this sensory extravaganza the simple quest story was a great vehicle to encourage the exploration of questions such as 'Where do you come from?', 'Where do you live?', 'What do you eat?'. It gently unearthed themes of difference, acceptance, balance and symbiosis. Mole in the Hole nudges its audience in all the right (hugely varied) ways, as it urges them not to be passive but to get up, 'sniff and dig'.

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ENO with Complicite
A Dog's Heart
ENO, London
26 November 2010

Reviewed by Helena Rampley

Alexander Raskatov's opera is an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, a novel that was written in 1925 but banned in Soviet Russia until 1987. The story is the biting, satirical Frankenstein-like tale of what happens when Professor Filipp Filippovich takes in a stray dog, Sharik, and transforms him into a human by giving him the testicles and pituitary gland of a man. Calling himself Sharikov, this dog-human hybrid predictably creates havoc.

Sharik is played by a thin and wily puppet, manipulated by four puppeteers from Blind Summit Theatre. He is dark and cunning, and convincingly skulks around searching for food. As Sharik comes into contact with Filippovich, we witness the brilliant stages of his transformation, the mechanics of which are all cleverly hidden from view. Sharik enjoys the good food of the bourgeouis household, and promptly grows a sizeable belly. As Sharik becomes a man, we see the puppet develop a human head and begin walking on two legs, before Peter Hoare is revealed, naked, behind a white sheet.

The synchronisation between Sharik's puppeteers and vocalists is brilliant, and Andrew Watts as Sharik's pleasant voice displays pleasing variety in the different shivering and hyena-like staccato motifs. Mazzonis' translation also allows Sharikov in particular some wickedly funny lines. Admiring his own virility, he comments, 'Perhaps my granny had a fling with a St Bernard.'

Michael Levine's set is uncomplicated, but easily moved to create a variety of different rooms, all with very clean lines and differentiated performance spaces. The use of projections on the back wall also lends the production several contrasting atmospheres. We see large-scale versions of small actions made on the stage, such as typewriter keys, as well as a healthy dose of video footage of Soviet Russia. The most effective use of projection comes when we see ridiculous, exaggerated shadows during Sharik's operation: blood spurts and huge scalpels emphasise the grotesqueness of this surreal situation.

Raskatov's accessible adaptation combined with the polished yet zany influence of Simon McBurney's direction culminates in an easily watchable evening's opera. With balalaika playing, an imaginative use of scale and more derangement than you could hope to find in a usual operatic farce, A Dog's Heart is a successful first collaboration between ENO and Complicite.

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Neil Bartlett and Handspring Puppet Company
Or You Could Kiss Me
National Theatre, London
17 November 2010

Reviewed by Darren East

Or You Could Kiss Me was unsurprisingly widely billed as a follow-up to War Horse, Handspring’s blockbuster, but in many ways – not just in scale but also in the exploration of formal properties of puppetry to make meanings, and the canny marshalling of other theatrical tropes – this show is more reminiscent of Handspring’s previous work, particularly the series of pieces that they made with visual artist William Kentridge. In this instance, their primary collaborator is writer and director Neil Bartlett, and the best of the show hinges on explorations of how and why puppets speak theatrically.

The premise is a fragmented story of the lives of fictionalised versions of Handspring founders and life partners Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, renamed simply A and B; we see them here and now, playing not-quite-themselves, and also as two pairs of puppets, their younger selves and their elderly, future selves, the latter at a point where B is dying of emphysema, literally running out of breath.

In operating the puppets, Kohler and Jones and their black-suited ensemble of male puppeteers are sophisticatedly deployed to allow words to flow around and across and in and out of the puppet action – we hear a mixture of heard and unheard speech and interior monologues, musings and memories, and always the puppeteers are precisely in place – and these places are often around the puppets in this show performed in the round – to support both the literal (human) speaker and the puppet figures. They are present as aspects of the puppet characters as well as observers, carers, storytellers. Since the puppets never simply speak, we are always aware of their otherness to the living actors; they are simultaneously living beings and memento mori.

For all that, and as an example of the contradictions that abound in the show, the most memorable sequences, the ones that give the show its strongest overall feel, are those of silence (silence of anxiety, silence of comfort, terrible moments when words become impossible) and waiting (again, of varied kinds and scales, from excitedly waiting for an answer to a question, to waiting to die): two states of being that are fundamentally non-verbal. These, and a handful of virtuosic moments of high-tempo action, especially a spectacular diving and swimming sequence, a memory in hyperreal technicolor. The common thread is the clear and complete commitment to the breath as the core of the puppet work in the show; the puppet figures, all slightly less than life-size, mirroring the delicate not-quite-reality of the narrative with their open carved architecture and revealed workings, are always breathing, with a struggling wheeze, a quiet sigh, or the joyous first breath of surfacing from underwater.

However, the familiar problems of staging puppetry in the round are never quite overcome – frustratingly frequently all that is visible of a puppet is the backs of its huddle of puppeteers. At times like these, and at others, especially when meetings between the two puppets involve a cluster of operating bodies getting between them, the figures can seem more manhandled than supported. For all the sophistication in the forms of performance and the story structure, there was something frustratingly lacking in the matter being shared; the main motor of the narrative, the question of whether B would sign his will, felt an inadequate foil to the broader themes. It’s good to see serious puppetry that is engaged with the real world and how we live in it, and disappointing then that there was so little specificity of time and place in either the text or the production; the glimpses we get of growing up being gay in 1970s South Africa reveal mostly well-worn anxieties, familiar social clichés, or universalised moments of exhilaration; and you would barely guess that the elderly scenes are set in the South Africa of 2036.

Neil Bartlett describes the show as 'half-documentary, half-mythical', but it feels as though he can’t quite commit to either approach, and doesn’t manage to make the tension between them meaningful; this might be clearest in the role given to Adjoa Andoh, the only female cast member, who gives a terrific performance – not least in pulling off a string of different but flawless South African accents – when she steps in to play all the female parts in the stories, but whose overseeing role as a kind of philosophising ringmistress, setting scenes, musing on memory and reciting Ovid, feels quite unhelpful in getting us any closer to the human story at the heart of the piece. Handspring bring a rich density of technique here, but it doesn’t make up for the sparseness of story: the puppets tell the touching truth of many individual moments, and memories of moments, but aren’t quite trusted with the bigger picture.

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