Author Archives: Edward Taylor

Little Angel Theatre/Silent Tide: The Adventures of Curious Ganz

The Adventures of Curious Ganz is a puppet performance ‘based on the impossibly fascinating life of a fictitious scientist of the first Elizabethan era, Joachim Ganz, and featuring the enquiring mind of the monarch herself!’

We enter the theatre to take our seats. The stage is strewn with small tables, circular frames of various sizes, and a lot of small objects lying here and there.

The house lights go down and the stage lights focus on the big circular frame in the centre of the stage. The lighting is such that we can’t see what’s at the back of the set. Curly copper wire shapes emerge out of the gloom, joined by small carved shapes. All of which suggest we are looking through a microscope at the beginnings of life.

This scientific presentation is slightly undermined when a small skeleton of a pterodactyl flies in and deposits a bundle. The hero of the story, Ganz, climbs out of the bundle and the story can begin. The imaginative intermingling of fact and fiction is a crucial element of the story. Ganz is represented by three carved puppets of various sizes, and he’s rarely seen without a magnifying glass in his hands.

His curiosity about what life entails is a threat to the prime minister who aims to keep the queen in check by restricting what she knows. The queen puppet is dressed in a sculptural and restricting skirt, very much a prisoner of How Things Are Meant To Be.

What follows involves the machinations of court; two comic retainers; imprisonment because of perceived heresy; a daring escape; a voyage to the New World; the discovery of tobacco, potatoes, a guinea pig and electricity; and the liberation of the queen through what these discoveries teach her.

It’s a splendidly picaresque tale performed by three experienced puppeteers who are always in the right spot at the right time and who can swap puppets over with each other without missing a beat.

If I’ve made it sound like an adult show don’t be fooled. Behind me, a 6-year-old boy was speechless with laughter at the antics of the retainers and the escape scene which broke the format of the show in a dramatic manner.

The show is presented by Little Angel Theatre and Silent Tide, the latter a puppet company set up by Sarah Wright whose parents (John and Lyndie Wright) founded Little Angel Theatre. Her impressive CV includes work for Kneehigh, Phelim McDermott/Improbable, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Here, her role is as both director and puppeteer. One of the other puppeteers is Liz Walker of Invisible Thread. (The two have worked together previously on many occasions.) The way the show is staged – no attempt to be realistic, and combining small scenes on different levels to create a bigger stage picture – is reminiscent of Liz’s work with both Faulty Optic, her previous company, and the current company, Invisible Thread. The third puppeteer is Nix Wood. Puppets and set are by Sarah Wright, Lyndie Wright, and Alice King. Associate director/movement director is Avye Leventis, and the composer of the highly appropriate music is Adam Pleeth.

It was a really good night out!

 

Featured image (top): The Adventures of Curious Ganz. Photo by Steve Tanner 

 

SIRF City Takeover

Edward Taylor takes a psychedelic trip to the Stockton International Riverside Festival to encounter, amongst other delights, rainbow-coloured cars pegged out to dry, and sci-fi globules that sing sad tunes when taken the wrong way

Stockton-on-Tees is a most unlikely venue for a major international street theatre festival – but the event has been running since 1988 and has programmed most of the world’s leading outdoor theatre companies. The town has very evident social problems, shops are closing up and down the main street, the area voted to leave the EU – yet every year they welcome this festival with open arms.

This year, Jeremy Shine took over the reins of artistic director and booked Generik Vapeur (one of the big French companies) to open the festival in style with their parade show Droles d’oiseaux et art blaxon.

They weren’t quite the opening act though. To start with, the Rajasthani Brass Band played us down the high streets. A taut side-drum and a bass drum kept a constant babbling brook of a rhythm going which the sinuous brass melodies sat upon.

 

Stockton International Riverside Festival launch on Stockton High Street. Photo: Stuart Boulton

 

Once they had reached the bottom of the street Generik Vapeur’s PA system mounted on a tractor going in the opposite direction to the band took over. The music was synthesised, accompanied by musicians playing guitars, a trumpet and electronic percussion. A female singer added high-pitched wailings to this persistent groove.

The tractor pulled seven white cars around which swarmed a team of performers also dressed in white with a few of the team wearing a coloured trilby. This parade was lead by a man in white who used a roller on a stick to paint a white line on the road as he marched.

The parade came to a stop half-way up the high street. Buckets of house-paint and paint rollers appeared and the team set to work painting each car. The musicians added more layers of music as the team painted away and by the end the cars had all been covered in vivid colours – one colour per car. The emulsion gave a different quality to the slick car-paint we are used to.

The parade continued until we all reached a huge washing line with giant clothes pegs arranged along it. The cars were then winched up until they all appeared to be hanging out to dry. Iconic images (Marx, the Buddha) were bill-postered onto the cars’ under-carriages as a barrage of small and noisy fireworks were set off from behind.

The last Generik Vapeur show I reviewed for Total Theatre was, in my view, awful – but this show was simple, effective, visually spectacular, and played to their strengths.

 

Generik Vapeur. Photo: Stuart Boulton

 

From that we went to Motionhouse’s latest piece, Wild. Motionhouse have a house-style which they rigidly stick to and whilst this allows them to create a lot of shows it also means that their development is hard to detect. This show had a team of talented dancer/acrobats hurling themselves around a set made of upright scaff-poles. A lot of the choreography took place on the poles but a lot was on the floor so if you were standing two rows back you couldn’t really see what they were doing. That I couldn’t see properly is testament to the company’s popularity (and the appetite that Stockton audiences have for this kind of work) but I would like to see Motionhouse abandon their formula and strike out in different directions, as Protein Dance managed to do at SIRF 2018.

The following day the highly experienced Avanti Display gave a text-book example of how you could present a street theatre classic (the circle show) in a fresh and funny way. Full Circle is played in the round and uses a variety of circular motifs, both visually and in the performance, to present a piece of street entertainment where the audience is actively involved, without the two performers (who look like members of a Swiss ambulance service) having to say a word.

 

Avanti Display: Full Circle

 

It starts off in a low-key manner with a large circular disc being rolled into a position. Red buckets are placed on this disc. The buckets contain an electronic gizmo which knocks against the metal like a metronome and which gives the initial action a slightly sinister almost subliminal beat. More buckets appear, a larger outer circle is drawn in sand falling from a hole in a bucket, the nearby van is opened, a ton of buckets fall out and children are roped into helping arrange the buckets around this outer circle.

What’s satisfying is that formal concerns shape the show, which is driven along by the performer’s experience. There’s no jazz-hands or monster-egos on display. Instead the circumference of the circle depends on the length of rope used to draw it out and that length of rope is worked out by the amount of buckets there are. It has an obsessive quality to it, but the audience are perfectly willing to buy into this obsession.

There’s a lovely section where a smaller bucket ‘hovers’ over the ground courtesy of four members of the audience holding ropes. To get the bucket to where it needs to be is not as easy as it appears, and there’s much fun in getting the four people to co-operate.

Eventually a tower of all the buckets is built around a member of the audience dressed as a sort of bucket king, the audience tug the ropes to give a noisy finale of tumbling buckets and then the children help the company put the buckets back in the van. I say help the company: the company barely lift a finger in the clean-up operation.

 

 

Mimbre at SIRF. Photo: Stuart Boulton

 

Mimbre are also experienced street theatre makers, and like Avanti bought this experience to bear in their latest show, Lifted. Three women performers, three chairs, a large green mat and a musical soundtrack.

It’s a series of acrobatic tableaux where the setting up of each tableau is as important as the final image. Each performer has a character but you never feel the characterisation is being acted out – it seems to emerge from what they are doing. The movement is fluid, it never looks like it’s a physical strain (though it must be) so it’s intensely relaxed. My quibble would be that at times it feels too relaxed, so the line between rehearsal and performance feels too faintly drawn.

I ended the day with Ray Lee’s Congregation. You gather at one of a number of designated sites (ours is an unremarkable spot over the river by the student accommodation buildings). A woman in grey stands next to a case of silver globules which are all throbbing away in a musical fashion. The globule has a happy sound (when you are moving in the right direction) and an unhappy sound (when you are moving in the…. you get the picture). You are each given a globule and your task is to find your way to the meeting point (which turns out to be the other side of the river in Stockton town centre, although we don’t know this at the start).

You are concerned with trying to keep this globule happy whilst people passing by wonder what the hell you are doing with a silver sphere emitting a rhythmic pulse. There are many conversations with curious passers-by en route. A group of globule-holders passed me by earlier in the day and they do look completely mysterious in a 1950s sci-fi film kind of way as they try and find their way ‘home’.

We got a bit delayed so missed the finale where all the globules played together. Instead of the effect being replayed for our benefit the globules were switched off and that was that – abrupt and a bit disappointing. So it felt that the company needs to work out how to ensure everybody gets the musical pay-off. (Editor’s note: they seemed to have resolved this issue by the last day of the festival, with all five or six groups plus stragglers given ample time to ‘congregate’.)

This year, the SIRF felt busier than ever – every show had a big crowd. My company (Whalley Range All Stars) has performed there ten times and it really is one of those festivals which appeal to the broadest demographic of age, class and race. When we first performed in Stockton in 1992 the experience was quite hair-raising. Now, everyone has a programme so they can pick and choose what to see. Long may it continue to be the case.

 

Featured image (top): Generik Vapeur and Droles d’oiseaux et art blaxon at the Stockton International Riverside Festival launch on Stockton High Street. Photo: Stuart Boulton for SIRF

Stockton International Riverside Festival 2019 took place Thursday 1 August to Sunday 4 August, at various locations in Stockton town centre. See www.sirf.co.uk

Philip Glass/Phelim McDermott/Improbable: The Tao of Glass

We take our seats in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and the lights go down, only for a spotlight to pick out one of the audience seated in the front row. It’s Improbable’s Phelim McDermott (writer/director), and he starts the show in a very informal manner, chatting to his neighbour in the next seat and telling us about his long history with the Royal Exchange. This gets mixed in with his more recent history, where he’s talking to Phillip Glass and Maurice Sendak about a possible show. It never happened, and this theme of things almost happening gets added into the mix.

The show features Glass’s music (played by a live orchestra), puppets (designed and made by Lyndie Wright of Little Angel Theatre, and manipulated by three puppeteers, including Sarah Wright), and other animated objects made of throwaway materials – and it makes great use of the theatre in the round. There’s a circular revolving stage and three large, illuminated steel circles which fit inside each other, and which descend from the roof to illustrate McDermott’s ideas about the pyramid structure of the creative unconscious.

There’s rather too much illustration of ideas in the first half – too much telling and not enough showing. McDermott is a very engaging performer and uses repetition and re-incorporation of narrative themes as a neat way of echoing Glass’s compositional approaches to music, but the images constantly get explained to the point where I wished he’d stop talking.

There was a big shadow hovering over this show. McDermott used to work with Julian Crouch, and the show uses approaches (sellotape, puppets made on the spot) that the two used together in Improbable Theatre twenty years ago, in brilliant shows like 70 Hill Lane and Sticky – but here with far less purpose or invention. The scenes where pieces of paper became walking figures seemed like basic puppetry exercises rather than images that could take flight.   

To be fair, the show was entertaining and thoughtfully staged throughout. The narrative eventually led to a story where Glass finally arrives at a workshop they had organised and tells McDermott to stop talking and do something instead. Here the music takes over, McDermott lies on the floor as if asleep or in a coma (this was mentioned in one of the stories), a grand piano with a player piano facility played a tune Glass had picked out in these rehearsals, the steel circles made evocative patterns on the circular floor, the revolving floor revolved, and our imaginations could take over. 

Phillip Glass himself wandered in as if by chance and sat down to play – a lovely moment. These two scenes said far more about imagination and creativity than a shaggy dog story with TED talk style interventions ever could.

 

Featured image: The Tao of Glass. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Horse+Bamboo: Boo Puppet Festival

Every year Horse + Bamboo organise a puppet festival at their base in Waterfoot, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town on the road to Bacup which is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town on the road to Todmorden.

Put simply, the festival is a little gem and features indoor ticketed shows and free outdoor work. So the audience gets to see a wide variety of puppet theatre.

This year they kicked off with the Theatre Ballads, a work in progress  where Horse + Bamboo collaborate with singer/violinist Bryony Griffiths  and singer Kate Lockley.  It features a  sequence of folk songs in which women turn the table on the social attitudes of the time, the songs enhanced with puppetry and filmed animation.  There’s work still to be done, but it’s strong start – the suitcase puppet show for a song about a female pirate has nice detail and design. The final song about a punch-up over the Franco-Prussian war has a flip chart of large illustrations which look like they were taken from a newspaper of the time – were it not for the occasional BIFF! Or POW! that have sneaked into the drawings.

The following night saw Pickled Image present Coulrophobia. Two  ambivalent clowns at the mercy of how clowns are supposed to behave, in a cardboard imitation of the world. The set is inventive and conceals surprises at every turn, there’s a Punch and Judy style show within the show which is both brutal and cruel, and the performing is spot-on throughout – every facial tic and twitch reads. It’s both cheap and literate in its humour, definitely not for family audiences. With the right producer this is a show that could easily become a left-field hit in the manner of Shockheaded Peter.

Multi-instrumentalist Chris Davies composed and played a live musical soundtrack to Lotte Reiniger’s classic film The Adventures of Prince Achmed.  The technique is simple – animated silhouettes with a few camera lens/superimposition effects – but there’s a lot of nuance in how the characterisation is achieved and how the different settings for the story are realised. The music keeps pace with the non-stop invention on the screen with themes and rhythms played on a laptop providing a base for improvisations for flute, soprano sax and oud .

Shona Reppe presented The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean,  a theatrical detective story where a ‘scientist’ pieces together the life of someone using a scrapbook and found objects as evidence. Shona is an incredibly engaging performer, the story twists and turns in unexpected ways and the objects/clues are enhanced by projections which allow you to see very small  and crucial details. In the manner of all good detective stories it kept you hanging in there until the end.

The final show was The Man Who Planted Trees by Puppet State. A lot has been written already about this show (which won a Total Theatre Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe a few years ago). What made it  really work was having the story undermined by a puppet dog who seemed to be channelling  the anarchic ‘I’m not entirely in this show’ spirit of Bill Murray at his best. Of course the message of the story wasn’t undermined at all but whenever it risked becoming too worthy the dog reappeared to add a  comic twist to the proceedings.

These five shows alone would make the festival outstanding. But the best festivals aim to create a full-on festive atmosphere rather than just present a series of shows. So alongside the indoor shows was a cabaret where puppet shows knocked together quickly out of cardboard were presented with German cabaret songs (some of the shows were created in the half-time interval); an outside  gallery of sideshows where, courtesy of headphones issuing instructions, one member of the audience does a show for another member of the audience; and a small series of intimate shows created by artists being mentored by Horse + Bamboo, who also premiered a new street show and a community parade made over the weekend.

Outward looking, entertaining, provocative at times, inventive and imaginative. We need more of this kind of culture. When it’s presented in an out of the way, unremarkable town like Waterfoot, which has not fared well in this age of austerity, it makes the experience all the more vivid.

 Puppet Festival ran atThe Boo, Waterfoot 14–17 July 2016. 

Featured image (top) Pickled Image: Caulrophobia

Theatre Tof - Dans lAtelier - Photo by Melisa Stein

Skipton Puppet Festival

Theatre Tof - Dans lAtelier - Photo by Melisa SteinSkipton Puppet Festival is a biannual affair run by the resourceful Lempen Puppet Company.  Resourceful because over the three days the festival runs they manage to give the audience the full range of puppetry (for young and old, indoors and outdoors, national and international) in a town which isn’t blessed with obvious venues.

The street programme featured S.A. Marionetas from Portugal showing us a story about Don Roberto – the Portuguese version of Mr. Punch. I say story but basically it’s an excuse for Don Roberto to whack seven shades of hell out of a skeleton, a crocodile, and a bearded figure whose symbolism eluded me. He ended up marrying a fair damsel. The courtship involved a fair bit of mutual whacking.

The set was your basic Mr. Punch-style booth (covered this time with a floral pattern rather than deckchair stripes) on which perched a crudely painted (or very well-toured) castle with a turret. This gave Don Roberto and his foes two levels to appear on which they did with speed and in places and combinations which constantly took you by surprise. The puppeteer appeared occasionally to demand applause for a particular scene – sometimes his demands were met but often the crowd’s reactions sent him back to carry on with the story and earn the reaction he demanded.

What can I say?  It was violent, simple and very funny.

Theatre Tof are yet another excellent Belgian export. Their show Bistouri is a classic and to this you can add Dans l’Atelier, the show they presented at Skipton.

The set is a messy worktable covered in tools, bits of crud and cardboard boxes. A figure made of a headless coat and gloves appears and sets about trying to rebuild its body. A cardboard box reveals a small polystyrene block which is impaled on a knife and stuck in the neck-hole of the coat. The hands scrabble around on the table and find a brush and pot of paint so that eyes can be self-administered. The two puppeteers scrupulously follow the logic of each development in the creation of the body.

Once the head is in place it needs to be sculpted into a more realistic shape. Like trying to cut your own hair in the mirror this is easier said than done, especially with the use of a big saw.  The eyes get accidentally trimmed off.  A smaller head is fashioned with the use of a fork stuck into the shaving with the eyes painted on it.  The larger block is then placed in a vice so the coat can carry on in a more “artistic” manner.

With the appearance of a pair of trousers a whole body is assembled and in the process the figure changes from being passive in the hands of his animators to becoming a tyrant with bullying tendencies. This process is emphasised when he discovers the end of a small brush and fixes it under his nose to resemble Hitler. Eventually the puppeteers have to “kill” him. As he’s stuffed into a box he doesn’t go without a fight  but a cordless drill finishes him off.

Over the 20 minutes the show lasts the company push the ideas to the limit. It’s extremely funny, shocking, and a brilliant demonstration of visual story-telling.