Tag Archives: Puppets


at Summerhall, Friday 2nd August 2013

*Originally written for Culture Wars*

Lauder! begins and ends with images of planes crashing into the Twin Towers in various configurations: as speech, using props and played in reverse on a computer screen. And though the show itself is in fact about a child looking for lost persons, the idea of one thing colliding with another thing and causing chaos is one which threads throughout, but in Teatr Hotel Malabar’s production the images swim past without ever coming into focus, and the wealth of visual intrigue is somewhat nullified by a lack of coherence.

Two men tell us stories about one child’s struggle to discover the owner of a key whilst telling us the story of his family. Continue reading

“The Cardinals” by Stan’s Cafe

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 10th May 2012

In Blind Summit’s The Table, we are told we are going to be ‘treated’ to a twelve-hour retelling of the story of Moses by a puppet. Thankfully, this never turns out to be the case, for to do so would be a rather silly idea. Although in The Cardinals Stan’s Cafe don’t go to quite the same lengths, they still seem to think a two-hour-plus rendition of a Christian history of the world using a model-sized theatre is a worthy concept for theatre. But even if there is a smattering of good ideas in their production, the overall feeling is one of tedium and pointlessness.

The framing device which is used involves a group of three cardinals performing the Bible, the Crusades and recent history within a small puppet theatre using a myriad of props and sets where they take the roles of the characters in the tales. The first act begins with Genesis and ends with the Crucifixion, whilst the second act focusses more on the stories of the Holy Land. Although we watch the performers throughout, however, very little is made of their problems whilst staging their show. It has the potential to be a sort of Christian Noises Off, but fails at the first hurdle by placing all the attention on the puppet show.

This wouldn’t be a bad thing if what was being staged was entertaining, but it’s mainly repetitive nonsense. Granted, this is part of the point (history repeats itself etc), but director James Yarker fails to comment on this in an intelligent way. The jokes within the show itself are lazy and familiar and the gags externally seem to have had very little time spent working on them. We’d forgive the puppet show of its ineptitude if there was something else worth focussing on.

Gerard Bell, Graeme Rose and Craig Stephens as the cardinals of the title are utterly dead-pan when performing and a gibbering mess off-stage. More could be made of the contrast between the two personas, but they manage to get across a fair amount without an awful lot of dialogue to develop their characters. As the put-upon stage manager, Rochi Rampal provides an emotional arc throughout the show; her quiet breakdown in the final moments is touchingly underplayed. The most impressive thing about these performers is the fact they remember exactly when and where to pick up the very many props scattered about the stage and never once miss a cue.

Aside from this technical success, however, Yarker’s production fails to pull us in. Even if we didn’t know the story as well as we do it would be difficult to find it interesting due to the lack of any sort of drama. If more were made of the offstage relationships, The Cardinals would be a far more engaging piece, but with the focus on the sub-par show-within-a-show we cannot invest. Kudos to Stan’s Cafe for attempting to make some points about religion in the modern world, but it can’t be helped thinking just as much could be said in a far, far shorter space of time.

“Woyzeck on the Highveld” by Handspring Puppet Company

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 11th October 2011

Written for www.StageWon.co.uk

Sometimes, it’s clear to see why theatre companies revive past productions. They may realise a commercial hit can create more money, or that themes raised in the past have somehow become more relevent once again. Handspring Puppet Company’s retelling of George Buchner’s Woyzeck, however, originally performed in 1992, is neither more enlightening nor (I imagine) more lucrative for being toured twenty years later. William Kentridge’s production, which transposes the original setting to 60s Johannasberg, has very little in the way of narrative, even if there are some charming images.

There are clear points being made here about apartheid in South Africa; Woyzeck is at the whim of white capitalist paymasters and is forced to become a human guinea-pig so that he can earn a living. His relationship with Maria is muddied by other men in his community, and he feels remarkably inhuman, which is heightened by the very fact he is a puppet manipulated by others. But it’s difficult to keep on top of the story, as some scenes contain no more than movement to a haunting dirge or a ring-master baiting a rhino to emphasise the idea that anything can be educated. It’s not easy keeping on top of it all when the company so frequently goes off-piste.

Kentridge’s animations are, ironically, perhaps the best thing about this production. They move along ideas and setting far better than both text and character. The puppets themsevles are enchanting enough, but without a decent plot it’s impossible to ever feel for them. It’s a shame that the compelling atmosphere which is created is completely let down by the mundanity of the show. And our contemporary selves cannot shed much more light on this show than out nineties counterparts. Then again, if there’s one thing this production has shown, it’s that Handspring have come along leaps and bounds in the time between Woyzeck on the Highveld and War Horse.

“The Lion King”

music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice

book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi

directed by Julie Taymor

at the Lyceum Theatre on Sunday 15th May 2011

It’s not often you get to go back to see a show ten years after you first saw it. Like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King is slowly becoming a London institution. It has seen thousands of performances since its opening in 1999 and countless casts have passed through the Lyceum’s stage door. The first time I saw this production I was nine years old, so naturally my views have become more discerning, but Julie Taymor’s production of the much-loved movie certainly seems to have deteriorated rather than improved over time.

Anyone born in the 80s and 90s knows this story, as does any parent of children from that period. Disney’s The Lion King has moments of pure, heartbreaking emotion (you all know the scene I’m talking about), but in the West End version the performances are devoid of any motive. The actors are simply going through the motions; it is clear they’re copying their predecessors rather than finding their own feet in a character. Movement and intonation are so rehearsed that it’s like watching robots.

Some actors cope well with their limited direction; Shaun Escoffery as Mufasa works this well, as does Stephen Matthews as a zany Zazu. Funny turns are given from Nick Mercer and Keith Brookman as Timon and Pumbaa, and George Asprey as the evil Scar is suitably melodramatic and droll. But where it matters, the acting is shoddy. Although only young, Ralf Herborg as Young Simba never finds his feet and as his older incarnation, Dashaun Young understudies without much confidence. Narran McLean’s Nala is the weakest link, failing to capture any emotion and singing flat throughout the entire opening of ‘Shadowland’.

Even the good performances aren’t able to shine, however, due to the poor quality of Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi’s book. Compared to the carefully understated screenplay, this text is over-written and contains too many lines which try to explain things to an audience, underestimating the intelligence of its spectators.

But for all its faults, Julie Taymor’s production succeeds in creating spectacle. Elton John and Tim Rice’s music and lyrics are stunning, as is Richard Hudson’s set design. A tribal, African world is created, revelling in native language and symbols whilst recreating scenes from the film beautifully. The most impressive aspect of this design is Taymor’s costume and Michael Curry’s masks and puppets, which put extraordinary life-like animals on stage in the way War Horse does. The only criticism is that they feel underused; we only see the impressive elephant in the opening Circle of Life’.

It’s such a shame that such a visually and aurally spectacular production has lost its way over the years, cutting out ‘The Morning Report’ and descending into skin-deep emotion. It’s clear that when entering a role performers aren’t given any leeway, meaning the script is only meaningful to children under eleven. The levels of emotion in the extraordinary reprise of ‘He Lives in You’ need to be sustained throughout for the story to have any impact beyond the colourful world Taymor has created. It seems all this needs is a bit of a shake-up and some acting coaching, which would once again cement its position as one of the ‘must-see’ shows on the West End.

“Avenue Q”

at Milton Keynes Theatre, Saturday 23rd April 2011

Everyone loves a bit of convention subversion. If artists didn’t try to break tradition, we wouldn’t have been given the Guernica or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Avenue Q is the first musical I’ve seen in a long time to break away from conventions – specifically those of humans representing characters and the themes that can and can’t be tackled in a musical – but there’s a constant longing for this boundry-breaking to go further.

Now touring the country after spending five years on the West End, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’ musical is set in a Sesame Street-style neighbourhood, with puppets for lodgers and television screens explaining certain concepts to us (“come-mittment” being a favourite). Princeton has just arrived on Avenue Q, trying to find a purpose in life and finding love along the way in the guise of Kate Monster. Rod has to confront his homosexuality and Trekkie Monster has his mind on only one thing. Throughout, their attention is diverted by Lucy the Slut and the Bad Idea Bears. Actors manipulate the puppets, who interact with other puppets and a few humans. It all seems to be so cuddly and sweet.

Until they open their mouths. And here’s where the genius of the show lies; listening to puppets speak atrocities and perform unspeakable acts in a musical defies all that we expect when settling down in our seats, and whimsical songs telling us “The Internet is for Porn” are far from the norm. It’s just a shame this doesn’t continue.

Because although the lyrics sung are hilarious, and Jeff Whitty’s script is downright crude, the structure of the musical does nothing to subvert expectations. The songs are written in the same sung-like-spoken fashion as many other frivolous musicals and the story ends with an upbeat anthem and chorus line. We long for some kind of tragedy to cement Avenue Q as a show which defies conventions, refusing to stick to the rule book. But it just falls short.

That said, the performances are all superb, and the actors who play the puppet characters do a sterling job of making us believe their alter egos are real. Understudying as Kate Monster, Katharine Moraz is extremely confident, showing true skill when switching to Lucy the Slut. Adam Pettigrew’s Princeton is truly loveable, and when he plays Rod there’s some real sincerity behind the words. Chris Thatcher is particularly strong as Rod’s flatmate Nicky and Trekkie Monster, being given some of the best songs in the show. Edward Judge, Matthew J Henry and Jacqueline Tate all offer solid support as the human inhabitants of Avenue Q.

Jason Moore’s polished direction shows a clear journey and some bold choices, such as Princeton’s “Propose” segment. All of Rick Lyon’s puppets have a life of their own and Anna Louizos’ set offers some exciting choices. It’s a shame more isn’t made of the ‘educational’ videos, which truly send up the genre and provide some erudite puns.

One of Avenue Q’s boldest moments is when it tells the audience that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”. It’s an audacious move and one that raises some important questions, but this level of thinking isn’t continued into the second half, where the plot becomes simple fairytale. Some predictable moments and repetitive music mean that Avenue Q just stops short of being an extraordinary piece of work which changes the way we view musical theatre.

“The Tempest” by William Shakespeare

at the Swan Theatre, Saturday 19th March 2011

Why is it that shows aimed at children are often the most enjoyable? Tell Tale at the National Student Drama Festival last year was an exciting new look at Kipling’s Just So Stories and the RSC’s recent Matilda impressed adults just as much as the kids they brought with them. Little Angel Theatre’s new production of The Tempest at the Swan Theatre suggests an answer; plays for children are not afraid of being playful, using objects and techniques which would usually be seen as too risky for a full-scale production, and in the process tease out aspects of a script which are not normally on show.

The production begins and ends with the entrance of a group of seagulls, soaring over the audience and settling on the simple wooden wave set at the back of the stage, taking us immediately to a desert island. Throughout the feeling of playfulness is kept; beautifully crafted puppets play Ariel, Caliban and a menagerie of other creatures, each manipulated with care by the team of puppeteers, who double as the cast. Peter Glanville’s direction includes some mesmerizing moments, such as the love scene between Miranda and Ferdinand, injecting back into the play the magic so often lost in performance.

The portrayal of Ariel and Caliban as a tiny nymph and grotesque monster respectively could be questioned, but in a production tailored to children this can be overlooked; they need to seem alien to children so that their ostracism is more pronounced. In any case, they are each shown to be cuddly and vulnerable, allowing us to empathise with them. Indeed the decision to play these parts as puppets draws out the fantastical elements of the play, making into more of a fairytale than a bittersweet comedy.

The production slightly falls behind, however, in its performances. David Fielder’s Prospero is fatherly and calm, and is countered subtly by Anneika Rose’s Miranda. The company of men, however, is less strong; Christopher Staines seems far too old to be playing Ferdinand, while Brett Brown and Ruth Calkin as Stephano and Trinculo never seem to have enough chemistry to allow us to go on their journey with them. Perhaps this is a result of the editing, which takes focus away from the Italians, but there is still enough text for the actors to play with.

The design makes a case for not simply sticking to conventional techniques when making theatre. The set and costume, designed by Laura McEwen, make good use of the space, and through suggestive imagery show us what is there. Lyndie Wright’s puppets all retain elements of humanity, and are lit beautifully by David Duffy. Ben Glasstone’s music furthers the sense of fantasy. A perfect example of all the elements of design coming together is in the initial storm scene, which begins with Prospero striking his staff around the wooden waves to create the sound of billowing thunder, and ends after much strobing with the destruction of a miniature ship.

Although this production primarily caters for children, there are aspects which will appeal to all ages. Granted, the poetry is sometimes dumbed down, but in fact this sometimes enhances our understanding of the text. Simple ideas such as the enactment of the previous schism with chess pieces and representation of Ariel’s imprisonment explain back stories without ever condescending. Which begs the question; why don’t ‘adult’ plays do the same thing?