The Third International
Skipton Puppet Festival
Mark Whitaker reports on a festival that puts a smile on everyone’s face
Skipton is a small but perfectly formed market town, complete with its own castle, situated just outside the southern border of the Yorkshire Dales national park. It is the home of the Skipton Building Society, the Copper Dragon Brewery and, perhaps more importantly, the Lempen Puppet Theatre Company. Liz and Daniel Lempen are the heart and soul of this festival and what a festival it has become!
The first International Skipton Puppet Festival in 2005 was a reasonably modest affair with just 15 performances programmed (although audience demand saw this grow to 20 as extra shows were arranged ‘on the hoof’). By 2007 this had doubled to 30 performances and still supply could not keep up with demand so for 2009 the festival doubled in size again with more than 60 performances in 10 venues - that translates to 2,300 tickets over the three days.
I arrived in Skipton on the Saturday morning and as I drove through the warm September sunshine (almost unheard of in Yorkshire) I began spotting the familiar faces of other puppeteers all heading towards the festival hub site by the Leeds and Liverpool canal basin where the box office stood surrounded by the Stanelli and Community Tents, the street performers of The Promenade, and the stalls of the Continental Market. Throughout the day small gaggles of puppeteers would meet up here before rushing off to see the next show. This festival has the good sense to set aside a number of standby places for each performance which are free to festival performers and the take-up of these was high.
The first show I saw was Little Red Riding Hood by Objects Dart at the Skipton Little Theatre. This solo performance by Drew Colby suffered a little from playing against the rather distracting backdrop of a drawing room interior (presumably built for the next production by the Skipton Players). The whole show – puppets, shadow screen and all – emerges from a granny’s wheeled shopping trolley and soon had the audience joining in and singing along. I particularly enjoyed the clever use of shadow images from the tie-and-clothespeg forest to the salad-tong wolf. However I felt the show would have been better had it ended with the end of the Red Riding Hood story as the subsequent unrelated story, although well told, didn’t have the visuals of puppets and so felt like a drop in energy.
Next it was up to the Community Tent for Presto Puppets’ Puppet Parade. It is hard not to use the word ‘camp’ when describing a show which begins to a soundtrack of John Inman singing ‘The Fleet’s in Port Again’ and which contains more feather boas than Danny La Rue’s wardrobe, but this show cannot fail to raise a smile. A series of short vignettes in which trick marionettes perform to music is by no means a new idea, but you would have to go a long way to find better manipulation than this. Robin Lawrence and Nigel Lawton’s performances are a masterclass in ‘the neutral puppeteer’, never once breaking concentration or pulling focus from the puppets in spite of being in full view of the audience. Particular highlights were the ‘duel’ between two puppets each operating their own Pelham’s puppet to the accompaniment of ‘Battling Banjos’ – not to mention the pig on the flying trapeze.
From here I went to the Promenade to see Stop! by Mikropódium. This tiny, exquisite show has been a staple of puppet festivals for many years now and it was good to see it back in the UK. Drawing influences from the mechanisms of traditional marionettes, wayang golek and Vietnamese water puppets, Adrás Lénárt has created his unique style of puppetry. The incredible articulation of these puppets, each around 10cm tall, is both mesmerising and inspiring and for a select group of people the highlight of the festival was having the delicate ballerina dance in the palm of their hand.
Back in the Community Tent, the London School of Puppetry presented Bits and Bats, a series of four pieces performed by their students. The piece in which a rather stocky marionette tried to fly to the stars showed real promise.
Back to the Promenade to see Belgian company Plansjet. Unfortunately for me the crowds were so large I couldn’t get near enough to see a puppet so I headed to the Continental Market to grab some lunch before heading to the next show.
Another show in another venue. This time I headed out to the Girls’ High School to see 3 Pigs by Storybox Theatre. This was a real ‘touring’ show. The set was a couple of flight cases topped by a large two-dimensional pig. Rod Burnett walked on stage as himself and proceeded to turn into a pig farmer, slowly adding more costume and slipping further into a West Country burr. What followed was a collection of stories and songs all held together by a piggy theme. Rod soon had the audience singing along while accompanying himself on the pig bin - even playing its lid like a bodhrán. The puppets all had an elegant simplicity with the aesthetic, carried through the different stories and songs, tying them all together. The performance was knowing enough to engage the adult audience members and had the children gripped throughout. As Rod himself asks, ‘Ain’t I ever clever?’ to which I can only reply, ‘Ar!’
The next show I saw was the highlight of the festival – The Ugly Duckling performed by the Russian Company Brodyachaya Sobachka. This wordless telling of Andersen’s story was lit with the simplest of lighting and set on a table top of rough wood which soon filled with a barnyard full of poultry establishing a quite literal pecking order. The puppets were almost gourd-like in appearance but each captured the essence of the individual birds, from the greedy, silly hens to the pompous, arrogant turkey. Into this social order the family of ducklings hatched, including one who clearly didn’t fit in. In a beautifully observed sequence, the mother duck’s natural defence of the ugly duckling was ground down by the social pressures of her farmyard peers until finally she drove the gawky creature away. The centre of the table was removed to reveal a pool of real water which the duckling swam in with wild ducks which were brutally shot by hunters. The transformation from ‘ugly duckling’ to swan was as subtle as the rest of the piece, the puppet keeping the grey colour of a cygnet but developing a more swan-like shape. All in all, this was one of the finest shows I’ve seen in a long time.
This was to have been my last show of the day but by now I was on a roll so decided to head down to the Stanelli tent (pausing to let Yeshe the giant, gentle yak from Yorkshire’s own Thingumajig Theatre, pass by) to see Circus Gockelini by Fundus Marionetten. This was a traditional marionette circus with all the usual acts. However, there was a twist: all the characters were animals. I enjoyed the hen on the tightrope and even Atlas, the strong man Maybug, but felt I needed a reality check when I realised I was watching a belly-dancing owl! Perhaps seven shows in eight hours are too many after all.
Still reluctant to leave (and having noticed a growing number of children walking around town with self-made puppets), I headed up to the Town Hall to see the bookstall and the room where the puppet making workshops had been taking place. Malcolm and Sarah from the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre were in the middle of clearing up after a busy day and preparing to do it all again on the Sunday. Over the weekend they made 239 puppets, a fantastic achievement!
Back to the festival hub to say my goodbyes. Still groups of puppeteers congregating, hunting down food and drink. A man in a yellow jacket and hard hat came and told us that another show was about to begin and as Dangerous Dave and his audience made their way to the Promenade I finally managed to tear myself away and head for home wishing I was here for the whole weekend.
So that was my Skipton 2009. I didn’t even get near Craven Court where the Theatre for 1 performances were taking place and I missed most of the walkabout performers but I left North Yorkshire feeling that I’d been to an International festival and a good one at that. It’s quite telling that a number of people there had left Charleville early to go to Skipton. Of those 2300 tickets, 94% were sold and an estimated 60,00 people watched the street shows which, in a town with a population of 16,000, is pretty impressive. I’d like to end with a comment made by a lady sitting next to me in one of the shows. She said, ‘For the whole day, everyone’s had a smile’. You can’t get much higher praise than that.