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