Author Archives: Adam Bennett


About Adam Bennett

Adam Bennett is a professional puppeteer, theatre maker, dramaturg and performance tutor. His 30-year career has seen him tour and perform professionally in Australia, Asia and Europe, as well as develop and manage shows for DNA Puppetry and Visual Theatre, The Western Australian Youth Theatre Company, and Little Angel Theatre.

Fables for a Boy

Adrian Sandvaer: Fables for a Boy

Fables for a BoyThis performance incorporates theatre, musical theatre and visual theatre in a variety of styles to tell several stories, the main one being a young boy’s challenging coming of age to be a teenager. While his parents are going through an acrimonious split, he finds comfort in the fantasy worlds created by his grandmother, until, that is, she passes away. His mother, now struggling to raise the boy by herself, is concerned about his behaviour and books him to see a mental health professional who seems to delight in prescribing anti-psychotic medication and finally sectioning him.

A darkly gothic style in many ways, the set, costumes, props and puppets are all quite sinister.  The set is a cave and a series of concentric rings of cave mouth establish a claustrophobic atmosphere, and even before the set is revealed we have an opening monologue from a man who appears to be on the edge of a precipice. The curtains part to reveal the past where the Boy (who seems to have no other name), as a puppet, is desperately running, operated bunraku-style by three people.

The puppet is about two-thirds life size with a very large head in proportion to the body and even larger eyes in proportion to the other features of the face. Raven Kaliana’s design is very appropriate, as the boy is portrayed as a highly sensitive soul who speaks very strangely and doesn’t appear to connect to this world very well, presaging his descent into ‘madness’ that is central to the show. The puppet is operated and voiced by Zac Hamilton who does his best to hide behind it, particularly his face. This is a shame as it makes his voice a little too muffled and degrades his ability to have a precise eye-line with the puppet.

The scenes are presented in a large variety of styles; musical theatre, physical theatre (with masked chorus), straight drama, visual theatre. This creates a sense of never quite knowing what world we’re in and may reflect the Boy’s own uncertainties about fantasy from reality.  The presentations of the Grandmother’s stories, in which the Boy takes refuge, use a variety of puppetry techniques. Shadow sequences are particularly effective, some live and some projected from pre-recorded film. Some glove puppets, direct manipulation figures, and a string puppet are also used during the show but to far less effect, due to the open staging.

It is not easy to connect the elements of this performance together. The music and the songs are well arranged and delivered by the talented cast, but this isn’t a musical in which the plot is driven by the songs. Instead they provide a commentary on the events or present a sideline story. The fantastical stories use archetypes from fairytale and folklore that seem to refer to mother/son relations. The scenes between the boy and his teachers, his parents, and the doctor who medicates him are often quite naturalistic. There is no humour or lightness in any of the scenes which make the characters ultimately feel distant and hard to relate to and this is compounded by the lack of insight offered as to what drives them, so it is difficult to care sufficiently about their suffering.

The cast are all talented singers and performers, well trained and able. Anya Hamilton (as the Mother) in particular shows a level of detail and strength in both acting and singing. This production is written, produced and lit by Adrian Sandvaer who despite crediting two co-writers (Ragnhild Kristoffersen and Gabriel Owen) hasn’t quite managed to create a satisfying narrative. The narration describes the show’s tale as ‘A story so sad and so wrong that it breaks your heart to hear it’, a description which for me sitting in the audience rang out loud and clear.

Theatre-Rites Polka Theatre - Beasty Baby - Photo by Robert Workman

Theatre-Rites & Polka Theatre: Beasty Baby

Theatre-Rites Polka Theatre - Beasty Baby - Photo by Robert WorkmanPolka Theatre is a wonderful child-friendly venue that has all the homely charm of a worn and well-loved teddy bear, or a toy box you can walk into. It has two performance spaces: the main space with all you would expect of a theatre space and the Adventure Theatre, which used to be little more than a carpeted room and now is blessed with great technical support in a space no bigger than a large dining room.

Beasty Baby takes advantage of this intimacy in a very domestic performance where three people (Sian Kidd, John Leader, and John Pfumojena) come in from the cold to prepare for a baby, imagine the arrival, and then deal with a small but rapidly growing infant. There are so few words in this performance that each time a performer speaks it has significance.

The charm and accessibility of this combination of physical performance, puppetry, and music is a result of director Sue Buckmaster’s great experience in creating this style of work, resulting in a show that perfectly captures the shock, delight, tedium, exasperation, and joy of caring for a small child. With repeating refrains of the various rituals of parenting, and some beautiful live musicianship and singing, Beasty Baby successfully creates an astonishingly beautiful poetry of visual theatre that not only keeps small children fascinated and amused but also celebrates parenting – honouring and touching the parents and carers in the audience.

Having three performers on stage, and giving the puppeteer, Sian Kidd, the primary responsibility of animating and voicing the larger beasty baby puppet (with a delightful babble of half-formed words and an impulsive, determined character) means that the two male performers become a tag-team of surrogate fathers who have to cajole, distract, encourage, and delight this toddler with ever more inventive tactics. It’s sadly common in children’s theatre to see very few fathers and male carers in the audience. Even when they are in attendance, it’s often the case that they aren’t engaging in sharing the experience with their children. John Leader and John Pfumojena provide some wonderfully positive modelling of good parenting, often tired, exasperated and having run out of ideas, only to find a new tactic that works – momentarily.

The show feels quite Scandinavian in Verity Quinn’s clean design, yet there are some wonderful African rhythms and vocal harmonies sung live supporting the music composed by Jessica Dannheisser. The blend of different cultural influences adds an interesting texture to the piece, freeing it of being located in any one culture. Simple but effective set changes give the satisfying appearance of emerging naturally from the play/parenting and the precision of its physical theatre and puppetry is of a very high standard.

Theatre-Rites and Polka Theatre have created a small but perfectly formed gem of a show, full of emotional resonance and surprising depth that perfectly captures the early years experience, from the perspective of both the child and the parent.

Smoking Apples - In Our Hands

Smoking Apples: In Our Hands

Smoking Apples - In Our HandsAgainst a backdrop of thick plastic vertical strips, Smoking Apples tell a tale of the fishing industry using performance, visual theatre, and puppetry. Not a single line of dialogue is spoken on stage, although some text is delivered through the media of answering machine messages and radio broadcasts. The main part of the narrative is conveyed either through scenes where human characters interact with puppet characters presented as disembodied heads and hands, or through clever uses of scenery, props, toys, and other devices to create miniature scenes of ships on the water, cars and trucks driving and delivering cargo, or brief shadow puppetry presentations.

All the main characters are puppets – the grizzled old fishing captain in financial trouble but loved by his human crew mates, the captain’s son who has fled the family business to work in PR in the city, and the small young seagull that never quite manages to snatch that tasty treat. The team of five performers work as an ensemble to create scenes and present transformations in the style of crew mates at sea – all knowing their job, sometimes having a bit of a laugh, sometimes in total concentration. Most of the scenes are brief, and the whole performance comes across as a cleverly connected series of vignettes that both explain a bit about the fishing industry and tell the story of how the drink-dependent father and worried, guilty son, both mourning the loss of their wife/mother, confront the pressing financial issues that threaten fishing.

The dramaturgy, sound design, and set design are all strong and consistent. The plot is mostly clear and the pre-recorded spoken text supports the dialogue-free performance. Smoking Apples are wonderfully and playfully inventive when it comes to making visual effects, and are committed to the puppetry, which they use to good effect. The device of a head and hand operated by one puppeteer (Matthew Lloyd for Alf and Luke Breen for Ben), occasionally supported by an extra hand operated by another puppeteer (Molly Freeman for Alf) demands a high level of precision which wasn’t always there, and when the two puppet characters have scenes together the inability to speak becomes an issue rather than an asset, which is a testament to the power of the piece. We believe in and care about the father and son, and we want to see and hear the emotions in their confrontations.

Smoking Apples are visually inventive and playful, willing to take the time and effort to create a satisfying piece of theatre, and are developing their own trademark style. In Our Hands illuminates the world of fishing in a remarkably original and unique way.

Green Ginger - Outpost

Green Ginger: Outpost

Green Ginger - OutpostA remote border crossing is the setting for this new show from the renowned and much admired Green Ginger whose work, like many of the best UK puppetry companies, receives more recognition outside the UK than within our own borders.

This production features classic tabletop puppetry and in design comes across as a three-dimensional staged graphic novel. On the surface it’s a dusty remote pair of tiny turret-like dwellings facing each other across a single rising barrier, and the play opens with a new guard (Luis) arriving, full of patriotic and xenophobic enthusiasm, and encountering the other inhabitant: a grizzled old veteran with a good heart and a cynical and pragmatic outlook on his job (BK – pronounced Beekay).

The three puppeteer performers (Chris Pirie, Adam Fuller, and Kim Heron) bring these characters to life with skilful manipulation and good teamwork. At first it appears that the Kim, the only female performer onstage, is condemned to operating the feet of the puppets moved and voiced by Chris and Adam, but the appearance of Madame President, fleeing an unfortunate diplomatic incident fuelled by the protests at the ‘Extravision Song Contest’, gives Kim a marvellous character to operate and voice, which she does admirably. This intimidating mix of Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet needs a bolthole, and Luis takes her to the newly-discovered cave he and BK fell into where a new source of power awaits to fuel her ambition.

In puppetry, design is everything, and using puppets with practical mouths means a responsibility to provide well-written dialogue as well as clever staging. Outpost delivers plenty of philosophical – though not subtle or sophisticated – material on migration, patriotism, power, politics, and society. In the opening scene Luis forbids a fly from crossing the border, bemoaning the surge of immigrants attempting to get into his precious homeland, and casually crushes it beneath his boot. Later he becomes the willing lackey of the psychopathic president, rapidly promoted. It’s only when she orders him to commit murder that he starts to question his loyalty to his leader.

Yet it’s worth noting that puppets do some things much better than human actors: they die better, they transform much better, and they have the ability to represent concepts through symbolism and metaphor better. A puppet can be a character and a symbol in a way that an actor can’t. A cast of actors and physical theatre performers could equally present this script: the writer still has some lessons to learn about how to fully take advantage of the power of puppet theatre.

There are some impressive effects, including one epic scene change, and a very well designed soundscape by Benji Bower that supports the production powerfully. There are perhaps not enough, though, of the transformations that puppetry lends itself to so well. However, the script is powerful, the production and design brilliantly realised and the performers have the skills and experience to bring the characters and events great focus and energy. Director Joseph Wallace has blended the visual elements and vocal delivery well, the plot is well paced and the lighting design helps to sustain a high visual impact on stage in a production that manages to capture how politics can make puppets of us all.

Rouge 28 - Kwaidan

Rouge 28: Kwaidan

Rouge 28 - Kwaidan‘Hello? Is anybody home?’ says the woman as she enters the space, furnished with 1970s dresser, television set, and table. A large dark mirror above the dresser, and wardrobe doors, are significant hints of secrets to be revealed, and a screened area turns out to be a small bedroom, with Japanese paper screens behind.

Immediately a series of images appear. Who is the small girl that suddenly appears in the bed? Why does the woman see another face in the mirror? Who is the mystery face in the television screen? What is the dark secret lurking in this woman’s past?

The word Kwaidan is Japanese for ghost story and there is a great build up of tension, suspense, and looming horror in this cleverly designed two-hander. The audience is kept on the edge of their seats, never quite knowing what is going to happen and which of the cleverly rigged and performed image effects is going to appear next. Full size puppets, shadows, video, and effects are used to play the various characters in the story. Highly directed lighting, with plenty of use of blackout, plays with audience perception. The music used in the piece keeps the tension nicely building and there are one or two ‘jump scares’ that make sure the audience doesn’t get to relax in their seats.

Without giving away any spoilers, the plot hangs together well, and the hints of bloodshed are well timed. Aya Nakamura plays the central character and does a great job, often having to play more than one character onstage at the same time. The effects and shadows are performed by Mohsen Nouri. Both Aya and Mohsen are excellent puppeteers and it shows as they both operate various characters throughout the piece.

It’s early days for this piece of theatre directed by Paul Piris and levels of finesse are still being discovered to bring out fully the psychological journey of the main character and the full impact of the climactic scene. However Rouge 28 have created something of a classic in the puppetry mystery horror genre.

Kwaidan will be in the SUSPENSE Festival in London on 5–7 November 2015