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:AO29 Spring 2010:
REVIEWS

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Little Angel Theatre Petrushka
Blind Summit 1984
Ben Harrison (director) Peter Pan
The Paper Cinema The Night Flyer
The Little Angel Theatre Jelly Bean Jack
Ding Foundation Hanging by a Thread
Puppet Lab Big Man Walking

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Little Angel Theatre
Petrushka
Little Angel Theatre, London
12 December 2009

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, Petrushka, commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes in 1910-1911, is a classic work of puppet modernism. The eponymous hero is a fairground puppet employed in the puppet show of a Charlatan, who regularly abuses him. Petrushka has an unrequited love for a fellow puppet, the Ballerina. Her affections lie with a Blackamoor puppet, however, and Petrushka is killed by his love rival. The police suspect the Charlatan of foul play, but he reminds them that Petrushka is only a puppet, a thing of wood and straw. Petrushka returns at the ballet’s end as a ghost to thumb his nose at the Charlatan.

Stravinsky’s music, with its raucous folk melodies, abrasive harmonies and pounding rhythms, is a staple of the concert stage. But like many ballets of the period, the story’s naïve romanticism and racialist ideology make it difficult to stomach for a contemporary audience. The fantasy of a puppet coming to life and expressing emotions might have entranced viewers a century ago, but is commonplace today, and requires more nuanced interpretation.

Co-directors Steve Tiplady and Lyndie Wright and writer John Agard have re-imagined the Petrushka story, fashioning the four-hand piano version of the score into a new dramatic work for three puppeteers and an actor. Petrushka still vies for the hand of the Ballerina, but this time with a juggler rather than a Moor. Upon Petrushka’s defeat, he cuts loose from his strings and flees to Switzerland, where Stravinsky is at work composing The Rite of Spring for Diaghilev. The puppet convinces Stravinsky to compose a ballet about him with a more favourable ending. Petrushka cannot escape fate, however, and his Puppetmaster catches up with him, decapitating the puppet, emptying the head of sawdust and entombing the puppet in a box. Petrushka’s spirit escapes his resting place and haunts the Puppetmaster.

This production is stacked with gorgeous images and flawless animation of hand, rodded and string puppets, from the block-by-block construction of St. Petersburg by a group of hand puppet stage managers at the start to the spectral flying Petrushka at the end. The puppets dance beautifully, and Petrushka’s emotions, his desire and petulance, are fully expressed. Stravinsky revelled in the ‘disagreeable traits’ he discovered in Petrushka while writing his score; echoing Edward Gordon Craig, Stravinsky wrote that ‘he delights me because he is absolutely devoid of hypocrisy’. The Little Angel’s Petrushka is similarly sincere. There is no suggestion that Petrushka or any other character in this fairground tale learns anything from the experience, as in Disney’s moralistic Pinocchio. We are treated instead to a show of disobedience without reprisal.

I would have preferred to have seen the fairground, world-upside-down atmosphere emphasised even more. Peasant women selling fish and pickles only begins to suggest the carnivalesque. The Ballet Russes sentimentalised this Russian folk icon, but the Little Angel might have done more to bring out the Russian Punch’s anarchic and rude spirit. Likewise, although actor Josh Darcy invites a degree of audience interaction in a scene where Petrushka surreptitiously alters Stravinsky’s score, he is unable to generate a true dialogue with the audience. This might be due to the use of a recorded soundtrack, rather than live musical accompaniment. It is hard to sustain risks when action needs to be timed to a CD. But at the same time it is hard not to feel grateful to the Little Angel for reintroducing Stravinsky’s music to a family audience in a colourful and inventive production.

 

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Blind Summit
1984
Battersea Arts Centre
8 December 2009

Reviewed by John Ellingsworth

Opening with a band of fiercely patriotic comrades who promise to tell the story of a forbidden love affair between Winston ('the thought criminal') and Julia ('the whore') without the use of the decadent trappings of theatre before Big Brother, Blind Summit's 1984 mostly stays true to its initial promise, presenting an adaptation where emotion is run down by savage narrative energy.

Eschewing props (a wasteful luxury), scenes are instead constructed by the ensemble using cardboard signs (e.g. three squares held over each other, a word on each: PILE OF WORK). Apart from allowing the company to burn through the tremendous amount of story that 1984 presents, the human agency behind every object works some of the book's intellect into the show's dramaturgy: when the cast rush in around Winston to assemble an office from cardboard, they're acting as manipulators but communicate also a closeted situation of underlying control and paranoia. 

The production is a funny interpretation of a very bleak world, but its humour is meta-humour, arising as it does out of the company's awareness of a demonstrative mode that closely pairs the narration and action –

Narrator: Winston screamed.
Winston: [Screams]

– and has its high point in a fevered dream sequence that interprets Emmanuel Goldstein's forbidden book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism as something like a highly-compressed, hyped-up YouTube video (a medium the company has obviously embraced); and its low point in a very weak joke concerning genital torture.

As a whole, it cultivates a kind of flatness, and becomes a headlong, forward-facing speed-read where no speech or gesture or idea is given the space to unfold in its implications. As a performance style it's true to the thematic matrix of the book, to the kind of lives the characters of 1984 must live, but it also injects a kind of inconsequentiality that obscures or removes the dissident potential of the text to say anything about our current world or real circumstance. It's all good fun.

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Ben Harrison (director)
Peter Pan
O2 Pavilion, London
6 January 2010

Reviewed by Penny Francis

I was very nearly late arriving for the show as no one had warned me that it was a quarter-mile walk through the (deserted) O2 to reach the tent where Peter Pan was staged. Once there, the bedroom of the three Darling children was discovered set-up on a large wooden circle cut for several trapdoors, above which the intriguing mechanics of the flying harnesses were visible in the top of the tent, surrounded by a vast cyclorama on the tent walls which held giant moving graphics as scenic backdrops. We flew over London to the sea and the island of the Lost Boys, as though we were actually airborne with Peter and his companions. The designer was William Dudley, the director Ben Harrison of Grid Iron company.

The cinematic splendour above our heads was not matched by the rather modest scenery and effects of the action on the stage. A handful of Pirates and another handful of Lost Boys, with Hook, Tinkerbell, Peter and the Darling family, stayed faithful to the Barrie story – up to a point. Some curious additions and subtractions had been made, most curious of all the presence of a small puppet ostrich, which had nothing to do with the story or the action, but looked cute.

The rest of the puppetry resided in the dog Nana and the crocodile, all expertly operated by Mohsen Noury at the performance I saw. It cannot have been a rewarding task: Nana’s part was barely sketched in and I found the (dog) puppet itself, operated laterally with hand-held rods, unconvincingly floppy (the programme does not name the puppetmaker). The crocodile was by contrast well-designed and suitably threatening, a see-through skeleton of cane with two internal operators, reminiscent of the War Horse animals. But its movement across the stage was taken at a run, which negated the natural creeping menace of a croc, with the operators too obvious in their white overalls. Worse, it roared, which entirely negated the important dramaturgical point of its dumb presence, undetectable by its intended victim Captain Hook, except for the ticking of the clock it had swallowed. 'When the clock stops, it’s all up with me!'  

The whole show was what Time Out called ‘event theatre’, as much a display of aerial skills, graphic effects and clunky stage transformations as an interpretation of the J.M. Barrie story.

Having myself performed in the play in the 1950s, as a humble understudy of Peter Pan, I was shocked by one moment in this performance. The spectators, asked to revive the fairy Tinkerbell by vocally affirming their belief in fairies, where once they shouted their support wholeheartedly, responded hardly at all!

 

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The Paper Cinema
The Night Flyer
Battersea Arts Centre
21 December 2009

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Paper Cinema returned to Battersea Arts Centre in December for eight days showing both The Night Flyer and a presentation of their production in development, an adaptation of The Odyssey. Plus live music by Little Boat and a scratch band. Plus pita bread and an assortment of cold Greek salads.

Part toy theatre, part live animation, Paper Cinema has developed a distinctive technique whereby photocopied, black-and-white hand-drawn figures pasted onto cardboard are manipulated by two animators seated beside a stationary video camera. Video images of these figures are then projected onto a movie screen. Audiences watch a live animation and the ‘making-of extra feature’ simultaneously.

Night Flyer is a short and simple tale of boy meets girl in a crowded rail station, girl abducted by dastardly villain, boy rides off after girl by bicycle, boy rescues girl from bird cage. The fun is in the telling of the story – and the live realisation of cinematic effects such as pans, close-ups, zooms, superimpositions and insert shots through the simple manipulation of paper figures of different sizes.

The Odyssey is still very much a work-in-progress, narrated by Paper Cinema’s director Nic Rawling through ink sketches pasted up on the wall, a selection of visual references (museum catalogues, magazine images), and sketches for some of the songs. It is obviously a much more ambitious work, and the problem of how to narrate the tale in all its complexities without spoken text has yet to be resolved. Yet the core visual style has already been established, a cross between classical imagery and scenes of contemporary Greece (derived from a recent trip that Rawling took around the islands). We see for example Telemachus, son of Odysseus and Penelope, going in search of his father through the museums of Europe, travelling by motorbike and Eurail.

The night I attended Rawling was suffering from stage nerves, and his dramaturg had to take over the narrating of The Odyssey for a moment at the beginning. But he stumbled through, with a cup of beer in hand, and announced at the end of his presentation that the audience was free to go, or hang around and chat, as we pleased. More like ‘an evening with Paper Cinema’ than a public performance, I was charmed by the informality and warm vibes of this event.

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The Little Angel Theatre
Jelly Bean Jack
Roundhouse, London
8 December 2009

Reviewed by Kati Francis

The lights dimmed to reveal a torchlit toy car soaring through the audience, instantly establishing the focus on simplicity and play which defined this very tight two-hander.

The long tabletop playing space – a desert with tumbleweed, cactus and tin-can caravan home – lent itself perfectly to the impoverished world of ‘Jacko’ and his ‘Mama’, who are left with no choice but to sell their endearing ‘Vaca’. The ‘mercado’ has stopped buying their milk in favour of the processed supermarket alternative. The selectively set, open space gave the talented performers room to create crisp images, playing with scale through a varied use of rear-rod, rod, hand and shadow puppets as well as masks. We saw a masked performer as the Giant towering over the set, caravan in fist, threatening Jacko as Mama flew the mechanical golden hen around his knees; Jacko climbing through the hands of the Giant as he slept on the tabletop; and (more surreal) sunglasses emerging from the toy car to transform the performer into a larger-than-life American jelly-bean trader.

The script was succinct; a crisp structure relied on expertly chosen witty one-liners, which (together with the visual images) gave the story clarity and bite. The language and voice worked beautifully crossing the Anglo-Spanish divide.

My four year old companion was suitably terrified by the grinning latex Elvis giant, aided by the atmospheric lighting and original music to create wonderful tension. I fear the political undertones and much of the comedy resting on cultural stereotype and pop-culture was lost on her however. Is it for the children or the parents that there is a constant need to devise clever conceptual variations on the fairy-tale classics? With so many original stories and varied media competing for kids’ attention, many of them are unfamiliar with the original stories, and I lamented the absence of the traditional repetitions and rhymes (on behalf of the smaller audience members). 

The tiny rear-rod Jacko and Mama puppets, although effective for the scale-play, sacrificed on detailed expression, leaving a void of personal connection between the protagonists and their viewers.

The parents or older siblings may get more out of it, but this is still a generous, sharp recreation of a classic, which left a big smile on my face. 

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Ding Foundation
Hanging by a Thread
People Show Studios, London
1 October 2009

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

In the centre of the stage, a bed; and in that bed what first appears to be a bundle of blankets and a nightie, turns into the bed’s elderly occupant, emerging limb by limb from the tangle of cloth.

It would seem that the bed has become the whole world for the old lady, who we assume is bedridden and close to death; the container of all her thoughts, dreams, and memories. From the bed emerges an evolving landscape of images; images that are sculpted from the quilt of the bed, which morphs into all sorts of improbable shapes – here a mountain, there a river – and brings forth a selection of mismatched toys and objects (a model house, a plastic tree, a white-cloth doll, a tiny toy horse) used as props or primitive puppets in the wordless stories played out.

At regular intervals a young woman (a life-sized half-human puppet fashioned from a tailor’s dummy, with a mask for a head, and ‘real’ legs) enters the room. Is she daughter, granddaughter, perhaps a spinster niece trapped in the household as carer? We are never sure, but we sense that the relationship between the two women is a complex one. The young woman has her own dreams and fantasies, which are played out on her ‘territory’ – that is, in, on and around the other objects furnishing the room. In the younger woman’s dreamworld a miniature suited and booted man dances on a bed of roses that erupts from a bedside bureau, and an endless flow of silks from giant spools enmesh the stage in a web of threads.

Eventually the two dreamworlds collide, and the bed engulfs both women, who become a mesh of limbs and garments in a kind of human patchwork, until it is unclear who is who. When a young woman eventually re-emerges from the bed as the only survivor, she is now in human rather than puppet form – a kind of Pinocchio figure, raw and fresh to the world. I enjoy the ambiguity of the moment: is this the spirit of the older woman, liberated by death? Or is it that the younger woman, freed from her duties as carer, is emerging as her own true self, no longer the wooden and lifeless domestic drudge?

This is Ding Foundation’s third production, and as with earlier work (such as the enigmatic Unexploded Bomb), the piece offers a dark and disturbing meditation on furniture and household objects as the repositories of human memories, and also continues Ding traditions in the casting of these objects/furniture pieces as quasi-characters in the drama – shadowy co-stars with the human characters, looming in the background, just waiting their turn... As is always the case with their work, the scenography in this piece is rich and evocative in a style that could perhaps be dubbed ‘contemporary folkloric’, a lush mix of recycled and reworked found objects, presenting the familiar in an unsettlingly unfamiliar setting. The stuff of dreams indeed!

The two performers, Amelia Pimlott and Hannah Marshall, are also the designers/makers, and are the musicians / soundscape composers too – in their brand of wordless theatre the music shares the responsibility with the visual and physical action in setting the scene and driving forward the story. The pair’s all-round talent is manifest in the making and enacting of the piece, and they are both highly engaging performers, but I do feel that there is something lacking in the dynamic between the two, and I have to confess that I miss the onstage energy of former company member Simon Plumridge.

Hanging By A Thread, for all its moody beauty, doesn’t quite lift the audience into the special space that previous work by the company has managed to do. But a good ‘almost there’.

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Puppet Lab
Big Man Walking
Over, Scotland
26 September 2009

Reviewed by Kirsty Taylor

It’s easy to imagine the conversations after last weekend: 'But a big blue giant really did stop by the house on the way to the beach, it did, it did!' I can picture relatives of the old man who lives in the cottage near Bute’s Ettrick Bay hanging up the phone, shaking their heads, and thinking it’s maybe time to book a place in that home...

But the surprised gent would have been right enough – a 25ft bright blue puppet with killer cheekbones really did pitch up outside the house, stare down with his big blinking eyes, and give him a wave before sloping off in his big golden sandals, on towards the shore.

The Big Man and his entourage of twelve puppeteers are plodding their way across Scotland, and the eight metre high colossus started his stroll through the nation at Bute. He was a little tardy on making his first appearance, stretching the goodwill of the crowd gathered in Rothsay’s town square a tad as they waited for his awakening on rather a driech morning. But the good folk of Bute were well rewarded after a bit of a wait. Children whooped with glee as he was finally unveiled with a shake of his rather sparkly red hair.

This street theatre spectacle is thought to be the first of its kind in Scotland – and with flexible limbs and moving eyes it is impossible not to be impressed by the Big Man's fibreglass physique. A cherrypicker in his back holds the one and a half tonne figure upright while his puppeteers use pulleys to manipulate his arms and legs to make him 'walk' as he is propelled along.

He would make an impressive figure in any location – but the £600,000 Arts Council funded project by Edinburgh-based company Puppet Lab in conjunction with Puppet Animation Scotland is to be lauded for bringing theatre to communities often starved of art. Many of those following the parade through Bute had seen little theatre on the island prior to the Big Man’s visit, and local projects on the Scottish legends that inspired this giant said to have fallen from the sky sparked a mini-festival around the island.

Other locals, however, had seen it all before. 'We used to have another Big Man come in here,' recalled one Bute pub landlord, casting a glance at the two pillars of legs loping by his window. 'He was aye coming in here causing trouble too.

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