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x.trax/Feast
Platt Fields Park
Manchester
6–8 June 2008

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

The annual x.trax showcase is always an important event for those interested in ‘outdoor arts’  (as we must now call this artform or mode of practice or whatever it is, the new label replacing ‘street arts’ under the latest Arts Council guidelines and initiatives, unveiled at x.trax 2008).

The showcase, aimed at national and international delegates (programmers, producers, festival directors, arts council officers, local authority representatives etc.) is presented as part of the Feast event programmed by Manchester International Arts, which is a family-oriented picnic-with-performance-thrown-in event that takes place in a beautiful lakeside park. There is always a strong puppetry component to x.trax – this year being no exception…

Looking through my programme, I earmark a number of performances to catch wearing my Animations Online hat, including Lempen Puppet Theatre, Frolicked, Thingumajig Theatre and Trukitrek. I also note that the street arts company (sorry, can’t get out of the habit) Dodgy Totty have made a new show with puppetry by Talk to the Hand.

Well, that lot will keep me going for a while!

But the trouble with tribbles – sorry, outdoor festivals – is that best laid plans are often thwarted – by the distractions encountered whilst trying to track down the show you want to see; by the fact that a lot of the work is walkabout so cunningly moves around (so you constantly miss it); or because you can’t actually find the company you are looking for.

Take my first attempt to find Lempen who were, the programme alleged, doing a couple of one-to-one pieces somewhere. You’d think that a giant sea diver’s helmet and a pregnant man might be easy to spot, but could I find them? No.

Did I have fun not finding them? Yes, certainly. For a start, I whiled away a good half-an-hour or more listening to and watching Tonefloat, which was no more and no less than a milk float with animated bottles, playing themselves a merry tune… and like all automata, once you see how it works it becomes even more fascinating (‘wind section’ using puffs of air to the top of the bottles filled to varying levels; plus a lovely vibraphone ensemble of bottles hit with little metal plungers. The only non-live element was a drum-machine keeping the beat). I had to drag myself away in the end, else I’d not have seen anything more that day.

I did get to see Trukitrek’s Hotel Crab, happily stumbling upon it with no real effort in the search. Trukitrek (from Barcelona) specialise in what I know of as ‘humanettes’ but what they describe as ‘midgets of three feet tall, half-puppet, half-human’. Well, no awards for political correctness but a fair enough description I suppose! The show is a kind of puppet-jukebox piece; a quirky singing detective love story set in a seaside hotel. Flirty lady guest with a mountain of suitcases; ageing ‘bellboy’ trying to do his best to please; cheeky chambermaid who discovers stolen pearls. There’s plenty of comings and goings – from the hotel bedrooms to the office of the crooked boss; up and down in the lifts; in the streets, on the beach. We get guns and girls and cars and stolen loot. The three-sectioned wooden fit-up is perfect for portraying all these shenanigans in ‘split-screen’ detail, and the show features lots of tunes that everyone knows (‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ seems to be a bit of a puppetry/visual theatre fave at the moment). It was all very well done, and untaxing on the brain, which given that I was lying on the grass after a fair few glasses of wine following the x.trax opening reception, was just the ticket. I particularly enjoyed the changes in scale and the lovely mix of 2D and 3D, for example in various driving-round-the-town scenes that featured animated big flat wooden car paintings and small toy cars manipulated by hands that suddenly popped in to the set.
  
Thingumagig Theatre were presenting two walkabout puppet acts, and a static show. I didn’t see Yeshe the Yak, but I think a large green bird-type thing I literally ran into right next to the lake (it was a close call, I tell you. I was looking for Lempen Puppets at the time, so not watching where I was going) may have been them, but who knows for sure? Their static show, The Mystery of the Sock Snatcher, is a gentle little piece for young children about (yes) lost socks. I think I’ve seen other sock-puppet shows about lost socks, although it may well be that a sock is such an obvious choice as a puppet-hero that I have merely imagined that I have. It’s a very prettily played little show. At around 20 minutes length it is just right for a young street theatre audience, who are held entranced for the duration. One-woman-band Kathy Bradley sets the scene with a soft song played on the accordion, somehow holding her own against the noise pollution of a neighbouring dance piece with a booming soundtrack  (small note to programmers here: could the quiet puppet shows be placed together somewhere in a shady glen, away from the brashness and hurly burly of the big acts of the festival?). Anyway, despite what could have been challenging circumstances, the relaxed style and obvious experience of the company helped them win through. Puppeteer Andrew Kim has a dancer’s grace, softly moving around the simple set (a wooden washing machine cum chest of drawers) with his funny little sock-puppets and animated objects, all the time accompanied sensitively by the live acoustic music. Perfectly pitched and very enjoyable.

Frolicked are an outdoor puppetry/ theatre company whose stated aim is to ‘take puppetry out of traditional theatre spaces and into interesting and unusual spaces and places’, and they have a kind of eco-vibe, with an intention to make work ‘inspired by the world around us and… informed by a specific place of interest’. Worthy aims indeed. Their show ‘Never Too Old to Busk’ works well enough, and keeps the audience entertained with its easy-going and undemanding fun: a fiddle-playing Grandpa struts his stuff, and a dancing Grandma gets a Nice Young Man up from the audience to boogie with her. That’s about it, and that’s fine. But I find the black-hooded puppeteers rather out-of-kilter with the afternoon sunshine and park setting. The point about head-to-toe black is surely that it works in a darkened theatre, obscuring the puppeteer (should that be his or her desired effect). Why do it outdoors, when you look highly visible but very sinister in broad daylight with blue sky and green trees behind you? If the company genuinely want their work to engage with its setting, is this their best choice as puppeteers? At the start of the show they don hoods and masks in front of the audience, no doubt in order to engage them in the taking on of the shared illusion, and I commend them for that as leaping out all kitted up like this would be really weird, but that aside, it still seems an odd modus operandi for outdoor puppetry.

Desperate Men’s marvellous walkabout ‘animations’ are I suspect suited to any environment. Their latest is Darwin and The Dodo, which has been performed, I am told, at the Natural History Museum in the presence of 400 eminent scientists and the great-grandson of the great man himself (Darwin I mean, not the Dodo, who is of course female), yet is equally at home on a lakeside path in a park. In a desperate (ha!) hurry to get elsewhere (always pointless at festivals, I wish I’d learn) I catch a mere snatch of a song lamenting the inevitable outcome of natural selection, which is sung by a wheelchair-bound egg-clutching dodo (body-puppet/mask courtesy of fellow-Bristolians Pickled Image). Accompanying the old dear is a gloriously bushy-bearded and black-hatted Darwin, playing the banjolele with great gusto. Questions that concern our bearded friend include: Could all the species on earth fit in the ark? and, How did kangaroos get from Mount Ararat to Australia? Limericks also feature, a verse from one having been kindly provided by the company for my edification: ‘There was an old bird from Mauritius / Whose egg was incredibly precious / She was heard to cry / Alas! I can’t fly! / The future may not be auspicious’. Catch ‘em if you can, latex bird lovers.

After numerous attempts, I eventually get to see Dodgy Totty’s Trip, Light, Fantastic and Co. towards the end of the last day of the festival. I miss the beginning (the trouble with… oh never mind, it’s how it is), and goodness knows what it’s about, but I’m there for the fun bit, when the monochrome office environment of the dull 9-to-5 world depicted erupts into a wild disco scene. Greyscale pictures on the wall turn into cheery rainbow-coloured sing-a-long muppet-esque puppets; a groovy diamante-encrusted disembodied soul-brother foot dances on the desk; a pink-lurex-clad go-go girl erupts from the filing cabinet; and the office nerd gets (nearly) naked and turns into a bump-and-grind groover. The whole stage is filled with all-singing, all-dancing divas, puppet and human alike. It’s great to see women physical comedy performers strutting their stuff, and it is good to see a proper ensemble (five performers and three puppeteers) in a street theatre show. Funky fun!



And so as the day draws to an end, I take one last stroll around the lake, and what do I find? Yes, Lempen Puppet Theatre! They were there all along, how could I have missed them? They are packing up for the day, but very kindly agree on one more for the road. And what a treat! Daniel and Liz Lempen each (individually) create a three-minute show for their audience of one. First up is Dan’s Baby, in which the audience member gets to look down a tube (a bit like an overgrown version of those horn-like things that midwives once used) at the swollen belly of the ‘world’s first pregnant man’. A little pair of muslin curtains inside the ‘abdomen’ is pulled back and there’s the wee baby, a funny little soft pink elf-like thing wriggling and squirming and peeking cheekily out at the observer. A simple idea, the best ones often are, created with such loving care and attention to detail that you just have to smile. Liz Lempen’s Riverbed Drive involves sitting with a giant diver’s helmet on your head. It reminds me of having my hair permed (when I was a bridesmaid once long ago, if you must know). Do hairdressers still have those strange space-helmet contraptions? Anyway, the visor becomes the stage for the ensuing delightful mini shadow-puppetry show. Frolicking fishes, dancing boots, frisky frogs – and ‘the river bed’ is exactly that, a bed. A sweet and lovely little show. Sometimes three minutes is all that’s needed!


Full details of the showcase, with a detailed entry for every artist and company taking part, can be found on the website at www.xtrax.org.uk

Top: Tonefloat
Centre: Trukitrek: Hotel Crab
Desperate Men: Darwin and the Dodo
Bottom: Lempen Puppet Theatre's One-to-One: Dan's Baby

 

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