Author Archives: Matt Rudkin


About Matt Rudkin

Matt Rudkin is a theatre maker and teacher who creates work as Inconvenient Spoof. He has a BA in Creative Arts, an MA in Performance Studies, and studied with Philippe Gaulier (London), and The Actors Space (Spain). He was founder and compere of Edinburgh’s infamous Bongo Club Cabaret, concurrently working as maker and puppeteer with The Edinburgh Puppet Company. He has toured internationally as a street theatre performer with The Incredible Bull Circus, and presented more experimental work at The Green Room, CCA, Whitstable Biennale, ICA, Omsk and Shunt Lounge. He is also a Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Visual Art at the University of Brighton.

Birds of Paradise/National Theatre of Scotland: My Left Right Foot: The Musical

This was a very interesting experience for me; not just the show itself, but also the subsequent conversations I had with arts industry friends who also saw it, which revealed very mixed responses. This is perhaps not surprising given it is a taboo-stretching satire on ‘inclusivity and the arts’:  My Left Right Foot: The Musical may be one of the most controversial performances to appear at the Theatre Royal Brighton for some time.

The show tells the story of how a Scottish amateur dramatics group attempt to win a national prize by creating an ‘inclusive’ show after discovering this garners more points in the competition. Their previous choices have seemingly been dominated by Pinter plays and they first consider making The Deaf and Dumb Waiter before settling on a musical adaptation of My Left Foot. Significantly, their version is to be based on the film adaptation starring Daniel Day Lewis rather than the autobiographical novel by Christy Brown.

Set in a naturalistic community hall, it uses surtitles to transmit the script to the Deaf community, and these projections at times expand into witty animations that take up the whole top-section of the set. One performer also translates the speech into sign language, functioning both as a character in the show and an actual signer for the audience. The onstage pianist, whose musical accompaniment is often augmented by a pre-recorded track (I presume), also provides occasional verbal descriptions of the set and action as a half-humorous guide for the visually impaired.

Most of the characters are portrayed as somewhat crass and motivated by barely concealed ambition. Lead performer, Gavin, (with West End experience) excitedly anticipates the plaudits, pointing out how many Oscars have been won for playing ‘disableds’. Lying back in a wheelbarrow he practices his impression of Daniel Day Lewis’ impression of the severely disabled Christy, to audible gasps of shocked amusement from the audience. The movement specialist in the group leads a session designed to help the actors ‘find their inner cripple’ which involves them flapping around on the floor and groaning. It’s fine, it’s a satire, right?

The backstage guy, Chris, has an actual disability (both the character and the actor) as evidenced by his ‘wonky legs’, as one character describes it. Chris is enthusiastically invited to participate but incorrectly assumes this will be to play the part of Christy. In fact they just want him to advise them on the reality of being disabled. Chris has strong feelings about mainstream representations of disability, such as the Day-Lewis movie, which he describes as ‘inspiration porn’ designed to make the able-bodied majority feel better about themselves without addressing the real-life problems of the disabled.  He points out that Christy married his nurse, a former prostitute, who continued numerous, hurtful affairs during their marriage: a disheartening truth that is left out of the film; as is his alcoholism and sad end.

Chris fancies the director, which leads to a tortured love triangle involving these two and the movement director who fancies Chris and is jealous of her rival. In an act of spite she calls the Scottish Amateur Dramatics Association to inform them that an able-bodied actor will be playing a disabled character. After consulting the Diversity and Inclusion manager, the administrator on the other end of the phone confirms this is a breach of regulations. Later a letter arrives stating that their production is ineligible for the competition, and Chris is given the role.

During the interval I overheard a woman saying ‘I thought it was going to be really PC, but it’s not, it’s really funny’, which perhaps is revealing of the PC image problem – it is often seen as judgemental and prohibitive rather than inspirational. Early on in the second half we discover that the cast thinks Grant was actually much better in the disabled role than the actually disabled Chris. I enjoyed and appreciated this problematising development, and the show’s readiness to explore the many grey areas rather than ploughing the expected, safe furrow. To me, it felt like a timely contribution to the current cultural tussling over the madness or necessity of political correctness and a surprisingly daring parody, very ‘close to the knuckle’, as one friend described it. But whilst it may be daring, is it deft? Opinions clearly varied.

I won’t spoil the later plot developments, but will say they effectively kept me wrong-footed and engaged until the finale. Interspersed within the narrative are recreations of the show they create based on the film, often delivered in rousing musical numbers such as ‘Genius Boy’, which I found quite mind-blowingly complex. Other notable mentions include Chris’s rendition of ‘Spastic Finger’ in which he celebrates the involuntary vibrational tendencies of his hand that prove particularly effective at stimulating female genitalia.  Another is Grant’s song about becoming ‘Woke’ after reading up on disability issues, which turns out to be a self-serving, virtue-signalling delusion.

At some point I felt that I actually realised what the point of musical theatre might be: the songs serve to emphasise and thereby better transmit the internal emotional states of the characters. I suppose that may be really obvious to many, but wrapped up inside this deceptively complex nebula of approaches to the issues, it clicked. And the irony is that one key question the piece asks is how much a dramatisation ought to divert from the messy details of reality.   

Does the introspective Ian’s social awkwardness count as a disability? Is Chris actually ‘disabled enough’ to represent the far more severely disabled Christy? Does Grant’s later diagnosis of mild ADHA make him eligible to play the part? I found this provocative complexity of questions interesting. What it did do for me was effectively satirise the myriad layers and types of discourse around disability. But then, I’m an able-bodied, white, heterosexual, well-educated, relatively middle-class and apparently quite-nice-looking man – so what do I know about prejudice?  At several points I did wonder who might take offence at this show, and for which reasons.

A provincial Am-Dram company may seem like an easy and clichéd target for satire, especially when perpetrated by the National Theatre of Scotland. My mother’s participation in our small-town amateur dramatics company (who did their fair share of Pinter plays) set me off on the road to appreciating the performing arts, so I suppose I might have reason to rankle. The fact that there is ‘only one’ disabled performer in the piece may suggest tokenism, and as a friend pointed out, it may have been far more radically effective to have an all-disabled cast representing able-bodied characters. But is this a condescending attitude to take towards the actual disabled actor playing Chris, who might reject the idea that he has allowed himself to be used in this way?

The key question would seem to be whether the Net influence on those who see it is positive or negative regarding their attitudes towards disabled people.  Is this just another example of ‘inspiration porn’ hoping to have its cake and eat it? Or is it astute and deceptively nuanced romp through the issues explored? Who knows and who’s to say? It is undeniable that the majority of the (presumably non-arts industry professional) audience in attendance certainly made vocal their appreciation at the end, and I should admit I that found it a surprisingly enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.



By the Light of the Silvery Moon – Luke Jerram and Thingumajig Theatre

Two Brighton Festival presentations, Museum of the Moon and Ghost Caribou, are seen in a park at nightfall by Matt Rudkin

By day it’s a mild-mannered, strangely blue giant sphere, but by night it transforms into an internally illuminated, optically bewitching orb. What else to say about this enormous inflatable moon, other than to emphasise how mesmeric is the effect. Come nightfall it seems a weirdly flat, pinpoint-accurate rendition of the lunar surface, suspended above the Queens Park pond and casting a huge reflection in the gently rippling waters.

It fascinates the eyes, and I found myself looking and looking for many minutes without the need to cogitate on any conceptual conceit the title, Museum of the Moon, may suggest. It struck me as really just a beautifully executed and technically accomplished… giant moon.  I suppose there may be many possible avenues of analysis but my mind was disinclined to distract itself from the sheer wonderment of the thing. The only question that did eventually intrude on my reverie was, how on earth did they make it? 

In the trees surrounding the pond there were mounted several speakers and I understand a soundtrack composed by Dan Jones normally accompanies the piece. At the time I saw it, however, the speakers were silent, or possibly the sound was not audible from my vantage point.

Museum of the Moon was created by UK artist Luke Jerram.


Thingumajig Theatre: Ghost Caribou


Thingumajig Theatre’s Ghost Caribou, which is one of the Without Walls outdoor arts commissions for 2019, was also seen on this full moon eve in Queen’s Park, Brighton.

The central pieces of this short performance are two beautifully realised, several metres tall representations of North American deer carried on the shoulders of their operators. Illuminated from within, their delicate internal structure is revealed through the skin, and their heads are held on mechanisms that allow for some expressive tilting.

As they whirl about to a pre-recorded, electro-gamelan soundtrack, directed by a shamanic cleric it all has a ceremonial, ritualistic feel. Just as I’m wondering if they are fighting or romancing, and whether some sensitive souls might cry ‘cultural appropriation’, these charming figures lean their heads skywards and let out their mournful cries, which many of the spectators in attendance enthusiastically join in with.

A large white sheet is then stretched between the caribou onto which is projected a shadow puppetry section. This features two smaller representations of the animals who appear to dance amongst a cityscape.  On reflection, I imagine they might have been actually protesting the encroachment of human civilisation into their habitat, but the glow-stick additions to the shamanic costumes suggest this element of rave. It’s also probably quite hard to clearly differentiate the difference between dancing and protesting in the medium of shadow.

And then, after 15 minutes or so, it’s over. As an outdoor festival event, the appreciation of the piece will partly depend on the size of the audience. There were several hundred gathered on the slopes to witness it on this occasion, and I did consider whether the shadow puppets were perhaps too small, and the duration too short, to fully match expectations.  But that’s a question for the festival programmers rather than the company, who certainly created an enchanting night-time spectacle that was met with hearty and heartfelt applause.



British Paraorchestra: The Nature of Why

The British Paraorchestra describes itself as ‘the world’s only large-scale ensemble for professional disabled musicians’. It works under the artistic direction of conductor Charles Hazlewood, whose mission is ‘to redefine what an orchestra can be… an extraordinary and perfectly synchronised body of instruments that draws on the tradition of centuries but is enriched and expanded by the talents, the instruments and the zeitgeist of the 21st century’.

The Nature of Why takes its inspiration from a monologue by the American physicist, Richard Feynman, in which he describes the complexities entailed in trying to reply to the simple question of why magnets repel each other. This highly engaging and charismatic recorded speech punctuates the performance throughout which, rather than illustrating the physics described, evokes the aura of mystery and wonder contained therein.

The audience is led onto the stage and spends the duration free to wander within a wide circle of musicians, comprised of singers, woodwind, percussion, string section, and electric guitar. The musicianship is excellent. Some of these also move amongst us, notably the operatic singers, and dancers performing in a contact-improvisatory style. Composed by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, the piece is comprised of richly layered tidal shifts between movements, with each musician amplified by often cunningly positioned microphones, and the sound delivered by speakers around us.

An array of suspended light bulbs variously flares up and fades above our heads as the dancers weave between us in pastel coloured costumes. The staging means that other spectators often obscure the view, so much of the visual experience involves observing others conspicuously consuming the event, since it is literally impossible to see past them. This perhaps unintentional element of the event might provide a rewarding research experience for cultural anthropologists, noting the costumes and expressions worn by we civilians as we choose how best to watch.

Whilst one section of dancing takes place in the sunken area offstage, the rest of the performance is not sharply differentiated. Rather, the experience is structured by audience choice. It is therefore probably best to set off on a good exploratory journey, to get up close to the singers and dancers wandering amongst us: the electric guitarist veering from surf to grunge, and the percussionists variously bathing us in relaxing tinkles then bursting into expertly frenzied flurries. At last one gets a sense that the end is near as we are encouraged to dance, though (thankfully) not too insistently.

The Feynman monologue gave me a sense of the awesome mysteries explored by the oft-maligned scientific method, and the musical accompaniment, both haunting and celebratory, provided a fitting expression of this never-ending endeavour. As children soon discover, but perhaps we forget in our quest for certainty, it is better to try and enjoy the journey of wondering rather than to hope for a terminal destination.



The Establishment: Fool Brittania

Shortly after the schoolmaster arrives, the flat part of his mortarboard hat falls off and we know we’re in for a very silly ride. ‘Hello children’ he says – and for the next hour we are Year 9 pupils attending classes in History and Physics. With no discernible political or social agenda, it’s an exercise in pure daftness performed by deadpan Dan Lees and smiley Neil Frost, who complement each other perfectly as the clown duo playing multiple parts.

Lees begins as the sadistic Headmaster, inviting us to throw hoops and balls at the terrified supply teacher (played by Frost). We move on to History lessons featuring Britain’s first settlers, who take us through the development of British ball sports. Next is a surreal and anachronistic encounter with two Romans in Britain, as Luigi teaches Hadrian the art of the pick-up in a Café Nero’s, with accents somewhere between Naples and Peckham. We meet some Vikings in their very short Long Boat, a travelling minstrel singing Bob Dylan style songs, and a jester struggling to remove his St George’s Dragon outfit.

I find that some clown acts can be somewhat self-indulgent, ever chasing the nirvana that lies just off the cuff. This show, by contrast, is built upon solid routines for the duo to riff off, featuring well-chosen musical tracks, perfectly mid-naff costumes and impeccable comic timing. It’s often the repetition and exaggeration of silly ideas that pokes at us as we teeter on the edge of titters before falling headlong into guffaws, and you hear these plummets going off in the audience around you as individuals reach their personal tipping points.

After the History lesson, a saucy dinner lady serves up Mash, Mash and more Mash, before the bell rings for Physics. This cleverly constructed section ends in a song about Space, Time, Energy and whatever else the audience suggests. Again, the humour is generated from the ridiculous commitment to a basic idea taken to extremes. By now, the audience are very willing participants in the mayhem, and heartily join in with the school hymn, sung at ‘the top of our lungs from the bottom of our hearts’.

Is all the corpsing genuine? – I suspect not, and I’d personally prefer a little less, but these skilful clowns clearly know how to work the audience and it’s a joy to witness the effects of such assured absurdity.




Death of a Puppet

 Matt Rudkin encounters death, dissonance and a mid-life crisis in three key puppet theatre shows seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a parody of a puppetry master class conducted by a middle-aged man coming to terms with the fast-approaching death of his father and the birth of his child to an ex. The introduction to Blind Summit’s Henry sets up the parody nicely; we are here to take part in the workshop due to run over the next few days. He asks if we’ve found our accommodation, and suggests if not we can sleep here on the stage floor. This is delivered as he strolls about occasionally looking at scrap of paper, presumably to remind himself of what else to say. But is this a carefully contrived device for creating the impression of a man who needs notes, or is the performer just not quite fully prepared?


Blind Summit: Henry

Blind Summit: Henry


This Master Puppet Practitioner (played by Blind Summit’s co-founder and director Mark Down) is assisted by two enthusiastic German ‘students’ dressed in black outfits with heads fully covered in black hoods. The students are played by Blind Summit regulars Fiona Clift (The Table, Citizen Puppet) and Tom Espiner (The Table, Madam Butterfly) – who are, of course, highly talented and experienced puppeteers. They are first instructed in the basics of object animation using a shopping trolley and a dagger as a demonstration to the audience. He tells them to ‘ask the object what it wants to do’, and there follows a funny scene in which he indicates when it’s the object deciding and when it’s the performer.

The Masterclass is punctuated by interludes in which we discover more about the man. We hear his side of a phone call, or perhaps he’s leaving a message, and gather it’s a strained call with a romantic partner. He tells us about his father, the famous actor Henry Chesel, who showed him little affection as a child, and is now on a life support machine. Black plastic bags are manipulated to create shifting clouds through which emerges the puppet of his father, similarly constructed from black bin bags. In these dreamlike sequences the father says repeatedly ‘Let me go, Luke’.

There is a deliberate toying with the audience throughout. As he sits on a chair, he asks the audience, ‘Where am I?’ to which someone responds ’an airport’. What follows is confidently created mimed scene on a plane, seemingly improvised, but later a prop plane window is brought on, suggesting they knew this scene would occur. The plane is taking him to visit his father in hospital where he will decide to switch off the life-support machine. The father puppet emerges again through the black bin bag clouds and opens up large plastic wings that cover most of the stage. It is a strange and surreal performance that shifts between frames within frames.

Blind Summit have an enviable reputation as world-leaders in puppetry, but Henry came across as a potentially genius concept not yet fully, effectively realised. It is, though, the first outing for the show, and the company have a loyal Edinburgh Fringe audience who are no doubt a good testing ground for the show.

Still to be discovered: What is the relation between a parody puppet master class and a midlife crisis centred around a death and a birth? What insights does it offer? Is this character a jaded puppet practitioner now falling back on delivering these master classes having run out of creative juice, and how autobiographical is it?


Strangeface: The Hit

Strangeface: The Hit


The Hit by Strangeface is also a one-puppet show – in this case, performed by ‘Mikey’, a middle-aged New Yorker finely crafted from foam and leather, and clothed only in a kind of loincloth. It is a strikingly well-made puppet, operated in a Bunraku-style by the show’s three performers (one on the feet, one on the right hand and back, and one on the left hand and head). This style of manipulation makes possible highly controlled and nuanced movements of the character, which was certainly the case here. Even though the performers were fully visible, the illusion of autonomous life they created meant that our attention became firmly fixed to the character. The performer operating the head also provides the character’s voice. Given the volume of words Mikey emits, this is a considerable undertaking and one he performs with great energy and skill.

The set is comprised of three platforms shaped to create the impression of rock slabs, and a vibrating beanbag chair in the corner. Mikey begins recounting stories from his life as a Mafia hitman from the apartment where he is currently holed up, biding his time.  He describes his philosophy of the survival of the fittest and demonstrates the use of monkey bars and gym equipment he’s had installed. These actions are mimed as he climbs the invisible equipment, a technique that will feature throughout.  His business is ‘removals… removing the garbage’ – yes, he’s a hitman.

He speaks in a Noir-ish, folk-poetry style that creates a degree of intrigue and ambiguity, especially given the myriad shifts in scene, time and frame. As he recalls a visit to a sauna (presumably why he’s wearing the loincloth), there’s an exciting release of stage mist from a fissure in the set. Here he meets what some might call a slightly effeminate man who seems to be making advances, which Mikey takes exception to. In this scene, the puppet plays the part of both characters, which makes sense given that he’s re-enacting the story, though it is unusual to see this done by a puppet. Adopting a different voice and character, the lead actor demonstrates an impressive range.  The man in the sauna says something about ‘dissonance’, which becomes a recurring theme, and points out that Mikey is a puppet, which could be taken literally or metaphorically.

It’s not straightforward storytelling but a stylistic mix of poetic, suggestive text and philosophical hints blended with narrative events. I remember some nice watery reflections projected onto the wall, and a scene in which he’s retching; I think because there’s a dead dog in the river. He seems to undergo an initiation into the gang that involves a rolled-up copy of the New York times being shoved up his bottom and set alight. He goes trampolining in someone’s back garden with a child, gets involved in a car chase and stands at a level crossing as a train passes by. Many of these ‘action’ sequences are very effectively choreographed and timed to a soundtrack, but how they fit together I cannot say and I cannot think of what Mikey actually wanted.

Admittedly I was a little hung-over, and it may be that my habit of note-taking during shows can actually distract me from being fully attentive, but try as a might to stay focused I just kept losing the plot.  Even many of my notes are reflections on how I might have become lost…

After the end of the story this same character gives an after-show talk about the psychological process of dissonance as it relates to puppetry. I did wonder if it might have been useful to begin with this, in order to funnel the audience into the show via this interesting idea. Ironically, I reflect that the dissonance I experienced was because the spectacle of the puppeteered object had little to do with the content of the script, or perhaps the script was just too complicated/sophisticated for me to take in whilst watching the puppet. I suspect I would have become more engrossed if I were reading the text from a page. The puppetry and set were very impressive, and the content of the after-show talk suggested the piece was full of interesting ideas, but the combination had a discombobulating effect on me. Another irony is that I’ve recently been reading about the illusion of Self and Modular Mind theories, so I’m actually well placed to receive the information. I note that the show was in part funded by the Wellcome Trust, and I wonder if the obligation to deliver some neuroscience had an effect on the dramaturgical decisions.


The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Famous Puppet Death Scenes

Famous Puppet Death Scenes at CanadaHub


Exploring death, destruction and dissonance through the medium of puppetry was something of a trend at Edinburgh Fringe 2018. Cue: Famous Puppet Death Scenes, presented as part of the CanadaHub programme in association with Summerhall.

The central concept, as introduced by an older host (puppet) character, is that by showing us we will be better prepared to face our own mortality. There follow very many scenes featuring the deaths of puppets, and every moment of death makes the audience laugh. This must surely say something about the nature of laughter – it’s really quite noticeably weird. The set is impressive: an Art Deco styled construction featuring a central, curtained puppet booth and two smaller booths at each side. There is also a screen at the top displaying the titles of each scene, ostensibly by different people. Each scene is so varied in style and staging that it is impossible to get bored, and as the show proceeds we get some truly breathtakingly beautiful and haunting scenes. The soundtrack is artfully chosen to enhance the different moods, and the visual trickery is at times quite extraordinary, and will make you want to rush back stage and see how’s it’s done. It’s all so inventive and exquisitely realised – kind of like the Muppets meets Monty Python meets Tadeusz Kantor.

There are a few recurrent characters, especially an inflatable-headed man who meets his demise in a series of hilarious confrontations with a giant fist. In a psychedelic German children’s TV show called Ja/Nein, the young participants meet their grizzly end by making incorrect choices. Some are like cautionary tales, such as ‘Poor Edward who dressed as a Deer’, and others are more poetic and haunting. Later on in the show, a woman wheels onto the fore-stage a large pop up book that she opens page by page, zooming in the ever closer ‘shots’ of a farmhouse, accompanied by domestic argument. The realisation of this idea is simply stunning.

This  is a brilliant show by Canadian puppet maestros Old Trout: hilarious and mesmerising, and my favourite experience of Edinburgh Fringe 2018.


Featured image (top) is The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Famous Puppet Death Scenes. 

All shows were seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018:   

Blind Summit: Henry was presented at Pleasance Dome, 11– 26 August 2018. Seen 21 August 2018.

Strangeface: The Hit at Summerhall, 14–26 August 2018. Seen 22 August 2018.

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Famous Puppet Death Scenes at Kings Hall in association with Summerhall, as part of the CanadaHub programme, 1–26 August 2018. Seen 22 August 2018.