BY JOHN MASLEN
Puppetry can be a magnetically fascinating media of artistic communication – or a novelty which quickly palls and is found wanting in interest and appreciation.
On a hot and humid night in Camden, forming part of the Camden Fringe, in a packed upstairs theatre with little air circulating, Stickyback Theatre delivered just under 60 minutes of sharp observational humour largely via the medium of puppetry, which was about the right length for the audience and the projection of the show, and happily instilled much of that enchanting quality mentioned in my first paragraph.
Perhaps wisely, the four performers did not rely exclusively on the puppet characters but appeared as themselves to give a good balance in respect of content and presentation. The essence of puppet characters, I feel, is in their essential sharpness and perhaps nastiness of character which captivates the attention. The jerky movements and bizarre design, the construction of the figures, often incorporating terrifying facial features and skewed body parts, which heighten the feeling of essential discomfort in engaging with the characters. Stickyback Theatre recognise this premise and pitch their puppetry largely at the correct level to reflect, in an exaggerated way, less desirable human characteristics such as cruelty, exploitation of vulnerability, sexism and racism – in this sense the show was often compelling.
The show had a great beginning with the interaction of a puppet figure – a Big Issue seller – and a member of the public, neatly homing in on the potential hypocrisy of the beggars and sellers who now scar and disfigure our streets on a daily basis – great political comment here. A shadowed sequence featuring a creature taking himself off to the London Olympics was another joy with its well crafted imaginative backdrops and great contemporary dialogue, especially that involving an altercation with a bus driver which reflected the frustrations and inequalities of modern life in a microcosm of simple exchange. Running jokes threaded between the quick fire scenes were a little hit and miss – characters noted as boring or pedantic by the hailing of them as ‘awkward’ did not work well – a little too obscure. The impact of a series of sketches based on the vulnerability, embarrassment and loss caused to the unfortunate man cursed with uncontrollable flatulence relied on your capacity to find this particular bodily function amusing…or tiresome.
A scene in which a Long John Silver character auditioned for a part insisting on emphasising the AR sound in chosen words to answer each question, while nodding in the direction of the Peter Cook/Dudley moore sketch on the one-legged man auditioning for Tarzan, nonetheless was bursting with humour and was brilliantly played by Lee White and Daniel King. Similarly another old idea – the movie star refusing to accept the difference between the fantasy world of the cinema and everyday life – was given vibrancy and punch in a two man scene in which Daniel King played Batman and Lee White, his hard-bitten police chief who has recruited him on the force and is now holding him accountable for his actions.
I should mention at this point the other two splendidly versatile and energetic puppeteers and actors completing the cast, all of whom were admirable, Jennifer Haynes and Luke Gibson. Their high-pitched energy levels added piquancy and humour to sketches integrating sinister puppets, on masturbation and then ladies of society and breeding courting a strangely compelling and cruel figure with a dark conclusion, and a neat understated, subtle pillow fight. The all-human vignettes set on an Indiana Jones movie, with good observations on racist stereotypes in media projection, and a sequence at Alton Towers, presenting the all too easily misunderstood person in these nervous times of over exaggeration in the protection of young children from would-be predators and its potentially farcical outcomes, was spot on in terms of humour and social reflection in 2012.
Referring back to the shadow sequence involving the creature setting off to the Olympics, the postscript to the tale was beautifully judged in its insertion to the proceedings and its sparseness and relevance to the prevailing mood of the piece. A group song rounded the whole thing off very nicely reminding us that its a puppet life – although with lots of human elements and viewpoints. A fast moving witty and well performed show with good balance between puppetry and human performance – and plaudits to Joshua Gilvary for technical supervision and extra marks to the aforementioned Luke Gibson and Lee White for sound design and puppet creation respectively.