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AO27 Spring 2009:


Improbable Theatre

Barbican Pit, London
14 April 2009

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

Squeezed between two large-scale, mainstream productions (the ENO’s Satyagraha and a Broadway production of The Addam’s Family), the proposition of Panic  – a personal exploration of the experiences of sexuality, ecstasy and fear uneasily united in the shady and much-appropriated figure of Greek god Pan  – is an improbable beast. Emphatically small-scale, and delivered in an apparently confessional style by company founder Phelim McDermott and his trio of nymphs – former company PA Lucy Foster, aerialist Matilda Leyser and old collaborator Angela Clerkin – the performance allowed us to observe at close quarter the rough aesthetic, disposable puppetry for which Improbable is renowned.

Yes, there were newspaper figures, a pleasingly limber, spindly satyr teetering amongst piles of self-help books whose explorations of the landscape felt loose and live – a throwback to some of the improvisational techniques of Animo perhaps. This mobile, mischievous spirit of the piece, who appeared variously though masks, hooves, an enormous wicker cock, felt most aptly embodied in his puppet form – both more codified and ‘other’ than his human hosts and also more free, liberated to dance around the set unlike the sometimes moribund bodies clambering or suspended awkwardly around the space. The more aestheticised moments were also a relief from the discomforting confessional, sometimes aggressive, modes of other episodes. 

A shadow puppet and animated orgy deep in the wooden recesses of Pan’s lair was a similar highlight, conjured beautifully by real recessing newspaper frames that moved seamlessly into projected images of depth to suggest an impossible cave somewhere far beyond the Pit’s reach. Here, psychedelic figures of the performers and a variety of woodland guests in animated cut-out form danced and rutted in a perversely joyful fantasy.

That this was a show which made me uncomfortable is not to suppose it a failure. Rather, Panic seemed to be trying deliberately to agitate the boundaries of theatrical and personal ‘decency’ and force us to look again at our own deepest impulses by playing with confessions of body and ego, undermining distinctions of performer and performance, truthfulness and lies. In this context the puppetry became the most concrete ingredient of the performance, conventionally representational, reassuringly recognisable, its witty animation of Pan’s spirit able to contain and embody the dangerously contradictory charges of his character.



The Porcelain Project
Barbican Pit, London/SPILL Festival
14 April 2009

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

The Porcelain Project, by Belgium’s Needcompany, began as an installation by choreographer Grace Ellen Barkey and visual artist Lot Lemm, consisting of porcelain objects hung (puppet-like, you could say) on strings from structures and frames of various sizes. From there came the idea to create a dance-theatre piece using the installation as a landscape, a world inhabited by the performers.

The choreographer then had the idea of telling an archetypal story of kings and fools, set in this surreal and magical kingdom, and to use the music of experimental British composer, Thomas Adès. Her notion was that the fragility of the porcelain would represent the fragility of human life, and suggest the notion that nothing we aspire to in this earth – not least human love – can last; that perfection, if it exists at all, is fleeting and easily destroyed. So far so good.

It starts well – a teetering pile of crockery shakes menacingly; the cup and pot ‘marionettes’, strung up on rigs and frames across the stage, quiver and clink. A loud crash startles us and sets the performers into motion. But from the moment the performers enter, there seems to be very little evidence of any consideration of the inter-relationship between moving bodies and objects. There are plenty of things to admire in the performance, which ransacks the European dance and movement-led theatre vocabulary to present a choreography of carnivalesque duets, trios, and ensemble set-pieces. The ‘landscape’ is visually appealing and intriguing. But this landscape is, for the most part, something to skirt around rather than engage with. The two may as well have been placed in separate rooms, and I found myself wishing I’d seen the original installation – which I rather hoped that spectators had the option of walking through. The objects offer an interesting potential for a dance-animation crossover that never fully materialises, although there are hints of the potential, for example in a section where a woman in a flowing dress is ‘strung’ from a frame, her movement causing the material to billow around her. There are also fleeting moments of object animation, and plenty of incidental puppetry/animation that emerges from the landscape, but beautiful though these moments are, they make the lack of interaction for the majority of the show even more frustrating!

Ultimately, this is a ‘theatre of images’ piece that has much going for it, offering a richness of visual and aural imagery, and demonstrating highly competent physical performance skills, but it’s a show which seems to be unsure of what it really is, and what it wants to do.


Welsh National Opera
Queen of Spades
Birmingham Hippodrome
29 May 2009

Reviewed by Daren East

A revival of a 2000 production by the Welsh National Opera, in collaboration with Green Ginger, directed by Richard Jones, Tchaikovsky’s grandly melodramatic opera of reprobates and anti-heroes is a morality tale of degradation and destruction from compulsive gambling. 

Puppetry feels a natural part of a design which relies satisfyingly on stylisation and clear codification – the way the chorus sweeps across the stage in opposition to one or two static figures, the ritualistic dance of the central characters of the love triangle, the dull colour palette of set and costume that highlights young Lisa’s spark of red, the aging Countess’s white face, the many ominous shadows. Then there is the slow retreat of the entire set at the end, and the large painting of the Countess’s face that forms the opening image in grand scale on the safety curtain – and which is itself effectively animated when, at the opening of the third act, it is replaced by a slowly-revealed landscape of a deathly, aged, face. The youthful painting is also present as a large framed canvas in several crucial scenes in the opera.

Whenever figurative puppets appear they given the focus, and a clear narrative or emotional purpose. They are first, helpfully, introduced in a self-contained storytelling section, the pastoral The Faithful Shepherdess, effectively a small play within a play, where the music is simpler and more intimate. The lighting tightly focuses on the pair of small rod figures that are elegantly and precisely operated by dinner-jacketed puppeteers, while the singing voices of the puppet characters come from the operatic soloists standing in the gloom around them. This tidy romance is interrupted by the appearance of a large, wide-faced puppet figure of a gambler – the puppet that feels most familiarly within the Green Ginger aesthetic – who, with his operators’ hands, silently impresses the young shepherdess with sleightful tricks, and woos her away from her rustic lover towards more urbane pursuits. We realise – in this visual twist to the scene that is entirely original to this production – we are seeing another version of the Countess’s own history, in which she learned the secret to winning at cards from a lover.

The Countess’s death scene – the crux of the show, made even more so by this production’s emphasis on the struggle between the Countess and central anti-hero Hermann, and narratively a culmination of her decision to devote herself to manipulating the cards – is played with the Countess’s (youthful) picture dominating the bedroom where Hermann accosts her and, eventually, fatally frightens her. She plays almost the whole scene with her back to us; we cannot be certain, even, about the exact point of her death. The animated figure and the human are thus essentially overlaid, and overseen – and only catching the audience’s eye – through the Dorian-Grey-esque painting of a long-lost earlier age. The painting, now slashed and torn, reappears propped up at the back of the gambling salon in the final act, where Hermann finally plays and loses, overseen by the huge skeletal figure of the Countess’s ghost.

This giant skeleton – the other major puppet, this time operated without visible puppeteers – first appears to Hermann in his dreams to tell him the secret of winning at the card table. Played on an elaborate birds-eye-view set, this scene is, uncharacteristically, a moment where the production seems temporarily uncertain of tone and meaning – not quite confident as to whether the natural humour of a giant amorous skeleton joining Hermann in bed is a witty moment of relief before his downward spiral, or a miscued attempt at overwhelming horror. The uncertainty seems connected to the unusually ornate set here, and the disappearance of the puppeteers.

Nevertheless, it’s a pleasingly spectacular theatrical gesture, and the whole production shows exemplary integration of puppetry into a form that already relies on knowingly setting numerous performative languages in ritual play together, and giving each a full expression. Puppetry’s artifice can sit very happily with opera, and it would be good to see some more experiments along these lines.

One small final quibble – it’s a shame that in the lavish programme where even all the children’s chorus is named, the puppeteers (Chris Pirie, Amy Rose, Jonny Dixon, Steve Tiplady and Sarah Wright) aren’t listed with the cast, but relegated to the end of the Green Ginger bio.


Gisele Vienne/Dennis Cooper/Jonathan Capdevielle

South London Gallery
2 July 2009 

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

In this unsettling and accomplished glove puppet and vent performance, Jonathan Capdevielle assumes the nervous, manic role of teenaged murderer David Brooks, who, with his lover Elmer Wayne Henley, filmed and collaborated in the torture and murders of more than 20 teenage boys by serial killer Dean Corll, in Texas in the 70s.  

Told using a series of glove puppets representing each of the characters, excepting David himself, the script, written by cult novelist Dennis Cooper, plays out two seminal (no pun intended) moments in the unravelling of this gory three-way:  a turning point in the psychology of the killer when he discovers his desire for greater possession of the boys he is murdering (and making the symbolic case for the puppetry form); and the trio’s final murder whose unfolding leaves two of their number dead.

Gisele Vienne’s intelligent direction sets in jarring opposition the vivid horror and emotional trauma of Cooper’s description with the rough (and sweaty) manipulation of the detailed gloves spread across Capdevielle’s lap and around him on the floor. The disjunction between the real and fictive, always a contested site in the horror genre, is emphasised by the contrast between words, sounds and stage picture. That’s not to say the puppetry isn’t sometimes rather good. There were a couple of artfully directed and performed sequences where Capdevielle maintained both a convincing performance himself of a frightened, surly, aroused teen whilst his two gloves – Dean, pensive and fuming on his lap and Wayne, trembling and enraged on his shoulder – operated at different rhythms with precise realism.

Vienne’s coup however is when she pushes this form further, in the second part of the performance. The show is driven throughout by the incredible vocal renderings of Capdevielle, who conjures the guttural bodily sounds of fisting, fucking, stabbing, gasping and dying with the dexterity of a beat boxer. The physical reality of this world is   recreated with the detail of a radio play and, finally, supercedes the need for any visuals. So, with the puppets littered around him like so many corpses, David recounts the final act of his story as a mute trauma he observes in an astonishing vent performance complete with multiple character voices and sound effects. It’s a provocative and dextrous proposition. This is clearly a director interested in form. Trained, like her performer, in Charleville her choice and use of the gloves with their therapeutic connotations and cartoonish physical possibilities in conjunction with this hyper-real soundtrack challenged her ‘live art’ audience with thoughtful illustration of the possibilities of puppetry in contemporary performance.


The Insect Circus
The Insect Circus Show/The Insect Circus Museum
Show seen at Fletch St Andrews 8 May 2009
Museum seen at Jubilee Square, Brighton 23 May 2009
Brighton Fringe Festival

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and Girls! Stroll Up! Stroll up for the Magnificent Insect Circus Museum! Behold the Liberty Beetles and the Cheeky Ladybirds! Be thrilled by the Knife Thrower and the Painted Lady! Gasp as Captain Courage, the intrepid Wasp Tamer, defies Danger! Marvel at the Worm Charmer and Laugh at the Dancing Snails!’

Thus we are enticed into The Insect Circus Museum, housed in a beautifully restored vintage vehicle, which travels throughout the summer to street arts festivals and other events up and down the country – this year so far I’ve been delighted to come across their van (well lorry actually: a Bedford TK Beetlebox, according to the company’s website) not only at the Brighton Fringe, but also at Home’s Big Event in Camberwell (June), Glastonbury Festival (June), and the Winchester Hat Fair (July).

Step inside and you’ll find something that is a cross between a Victorian travelling sideshow and those lovely old ‘cabinet of curiosity’ corners in museums in which artefacts from distant lands are preserved inside sturdy glass-and-mahogany display cabinets.

Tiny puppets and automata, operated by traditional push-button and handle-turning mechanisms, are viewed through illuminated peep-boxes. We see Flingo throwing his knives at the ‘painted lady’ (a beautiful butterfly whose wings are pinned); a cage full of highly dangerous wasps; and in one glorious construction, a whole big top ring full of performing miniature beasts. Elsewhere, there are displays of costumes, and a plethora of printed ephemera, such as posters that lovingly ape the classic Bertram Mills circus publicity, and a witty spoof of The Beatles (pop magazines, flyers, and tickets for a band of bugs called The People).

The Museum is presented free or by small donation, and is easily spotted at festivals – the beautiful illustrations of insects painted on its red-and-yellow exterior and the queues of happy punters will draw you to it, like a bee to a honey pot.

The Museum has toured for many years, but the show came later (premiering in London’s magnificent music hall venue, Hoxton Hall, in 2006). It is a design-led project, with the vision of the Museum moved into physical performance via beautifully-crafted costumes, whole-body-masks, puppets, and automata – all set into a lovely mock-Victorian environment of letterpress entrance posters, handwritten signs, red curtained stage, and gorgeous props and set. Within this environment, the circus acts are presented with all the ‘roll-up, roll-up – see the wonders of the world’ aplomb that you’d expect (courtesy of ringmaster Sir Ronald McPeak and his lovely partner, Lady Bonnie Berkeley – in real life, Insect Circus founders and chief makers/animators, Mark Copeland and Sarah Munroe). The acts – which bring to life, as much as is humanely possible, the scenes presented in the Museum – are brought to us by a rotating team of circus and physical theatre performers.

Seen (not for the first time!) by this reviewer at Fletch at St Andrews church, during the Brighton Fringe, the show is on good form – the Insect Circus team handling with aplomb the restrictions of a low stage, with the audience seated in pews, and challenges in the rigging. The disadvantages of the space are overcome, and its advantages exploited – for example, in an exciting moment when a giant cockroach hurtles down the central aisle to confront Maroc the Beast Tamer in a ferocious ‘bullfight’. Other jolly jaunts include The Antics acrobatics troupe, and the sad tale of Ephemera the Mayfly (with us for one day only) which is a lovely spoof of Isadora Duncan’s expressionist dance. Another charming vignette is Nurse Dusty Woodruff and the Mighty Mite Tea Party, the mites being a trio of naughty glove-puppets who slurp and spill their tea, a process so messy that Nursey Nurse is required to place rubber sheets over the laps of the front row of the audience.

Presented in the afternoon, the show attracts a family audience, and people of all ages are delighted by the visual feast on offer.

Long live the Insect Circus in all its manifestations – an outstanding and astounding entomological extravaganza!


Teresa Grimaldi
The Vacated Works
Quay Arts Centre
Newport, Isle of Wight
May– June 2009

Reviewed by Colin Phillimore

Teresa Grimaldi has returned to her native Isle of Wight, to present an inspiring body of work in an installation/exhibition that appeals to all ages. This is because The Vacated Works (presented at Quay Arts Centre) is about ‘everyday things’ that matter and form a collective experience. Grimaldi captures a moment in time and exhibits those items on our behalf. This multi-faceted artist throws us straight into the relationships between the archive and puppet/collector/childhood memory.
In Kiosk Memories, the Ice Cream store La Banane - set up by Teresa and her sister Catherine in the 1980s as an extension to their father’s café - is remembered. Hundreds of ice-lolly sticks are found on the floor offering us their corny jokes, encouraging us to pick them up and remember the pleasure of seaside ice. Holiday items for sale hung from a pin board represent all sorts of sun-kissed memorabilia to tempt visitors to part with their holiday spending money. La Banane was re-created for one day only in May and the subsequent video is shown as part of the exhibition, encouraging oral history reminiscence from passers-by, who listen to those summertime hits that blared out from the kiosk through the headphones provided.
Grimaldi’s own collecting obsession is beautifully manifested with the installation Ticketitus that captures one Captain Keith Hockney (who claims to be a relative of David!). The Captain’s collectables shop in Ventnor was part of the local make-up, until it was closed for redevelopment. A video interview with the Captain takes us through his retail philosophy, but the stars of the show are his handwritten labels that are freefalling and personal: Reduced, Reduced, Reduced: The Dozers are Coming they cry out as if in a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Grimaldi has saved many of these tags, that like a honey trap, entice the avid collector to delve deep into boxes of books, postcards and the like.
Through Vacated Gloves Grimaldi returns to her passion for puppeteering. Her quintessentially English approach to humour, nostalgia, and childhood through use of the puppet, expresses notions of ‘otherworldliness’ or the ‘in-between space’. We are invited to tiptoe across discarded glove puppets all constructed from black moulds, to a black, puppet show theatre, where we can become a puppeteer ourselves and bring colour into the scene of marionette carnage through our own puppet show.
Through Vacated Works Teresa Grimaldi takes us back to the summers of our childhood and adolescence without playing on our sentimentality. In bombarding the senses through her subtle and honest techniques she takes us back to summers where the beach - and all its related culture - held us under its spell and while we stand and reminisce, the kids will enjoy exploring and creating their own memories.
This exhibition deserves a wider audience on the mainland, let’s hope it gets more widely seen.


Ronnie Burkett
Billy Twinkle – Requiem for a Golden Boy
Barbican BITEApril 2009

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

Billy Twinkle is a cruise-ship puppeteer; an entertainer who can perform all the tricks of the cabaret puppetry trade, including that oh-so-difficult puppet striptease number (here demonstrated by the delightful Miss Rusty Knockers). Billy is in the middle of it all: in the middle of the ocean; at the mid-point of his life. And he’s reached a point of crisis – the golden boy of puppetry is approaching middle-age, fired from his job, and haunted by the ghost of his former mentor Sid Diamond (appearing here as a combative glove puppet), who berates him for abandoning art (‘Shakespeare with marionettes, just think Billy!’) and taking the commercial route.

In the creation of this piece Burkett has gone back to the drawing board: researching methods of making and performing new to him (as for example in the use of papier-mâché rather than wood-carved puppet heads, and in the recreation of those old vaudeville puppetry routines – the stripper, the opera-singing diva, the roller-skating animal act – with the help of veteran ‘nightclub’ puppeteer Tony Urbano). The term ‘theatrical tour de force’ is perhaps a little over-used by reviewers, but it is hard to imagine a more opportune use of it than here to describe Ronnie Burkett’s extraordinary achievement, in which a puppeteer’s life is investigated using a beguiling mix of rapid-fire monologue, physically robust performance (for once, he’s very much at the forefront of the action); expert marionetting (of course, as we’d expect from Burkett) and other forms of puppetry – Sid the Glove for example – not to mention the puppetry within the puppetry (yes, the puppets often have puppets too!).

This is an odd and interesting show – of course a fantastic showcase for Burkett’s puppetry skills, yet also an investigation of the choice to become a puppeteer, and the choices that ensue from that core choice. In other words, it is not only a puppet theatre show; it is also a show about puppet theatre.

Writing in Animations in Print Volume 2 about the making of this show, Ronnie Burkett says: ‘I realised I had to create a character with a whole lifelong affair with puppetry. And I had to create a character of fiction so fully drawn that everyone would assume it was my life story, which it would not be.’ Billy Twinkle is not, of course, Ronnie Burkett. Yet Billy perhaps represents a parallel life to his creator’s that allows him to explore aspects of his own life story and his lifelong intense relationship with puppetry. Both Billy and Ronnie were obsessed with puppets as children; both were precocious teenagers who demanded that older puppeteers mentor them; both took brave decisions to strike out on their own path, rather than follow the paths that others might have chosen for them. Billy allows Ronnie to explore and express the complex relationships of the puppet theatre world; between puppet and puppeteer; between puppeteers of different generations and inclinations; between those on the inside and those on the outside of the puppetry ghetto.

Burkett has also said of the process of making this show that ‘the sweetest thing happened. I fell in love with puppetry again’. Many critics and commentators found the intensity of Burkett’s performance in Billy Twinkle a little too much to take. It has been said, for example, that this show is more about him than about the puppets. But for me, the intensity is part of the pleasure: what we see onstage is evidence of a lifelong love affair, it is the raw and intense expression of Burkett’s obsessive love of puppetry that we witness here in Billy Twinkle. Requiem for a Golden Boy, maybe. Ode to puppetry, definitely.


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