Kneehigh have an illustrious history in the vibrant adaptation of fairy tales (from The Red Shoes to Rapunzel and beyond) and so Jim Dodge’s much-loved first novel, Fup – often graced with the suffix ‘a modern fable’ – is a choice that resonates with their back catalogue.
The short novel, published in 1983, has achieved cult status for its open-hearted portrayal of the relationship between reprobate centenarian Jake Santee and the damaged gentle giant of a grandson, Tiny, who comes into his care after being brutally orphaned, via a gambling spree that sees Jake out-manoeuvring social services. If their characterisation sounds larger than life, the sweep of their story keeps pace: although this is a small town novel, set in what feels like an outpost in nineteenth century California, it’s full of incident – reversals of fortune, home-brew with healing properties, obsession, terrible accidents, sex and death.
So far, so fairytale, and these qualities of Dodge’s story lend themselves well to a theatrical retelling in Kneehigh’s confident hands. A hard-working small ensemble deftly switch roles and bring to life a cast of local characters – the prudish social worker; rockstar pilot father (deceased); gossipy postman.
Switching the community from the American west coast to the British south west, Kneehigh’s native Cornwall, is an inspired choice that animates and pastiches its small-town rural mentality whilst weaving the world more closely to their local audiences. On tour, I can imagine that the characterisations feel a little broader than in the company’s community home town gigs, but Ben Sutcliffe and Zaid Al-Rikabi’s (The People’s String Foundation) brilliant score adds some depth to the context, drawing together countrified blue grass with a multi-instrumental mash-up of pop covers, singalongs and highly evocative mood music.
And then, of course there’s the duck. A scene-stealer on the page, on the stage, this is a dream part for a puppet. Longterm Kneehigh collaborator (and former War Horse wrangler) Rachel Leonard works beautifully with characterful rhythm and some interesting voice work, to bring her, feathers bristling, to utterly convincing life on stage. Puppetry is threaded throughout the performance, grounding the Fup duck dramaturgically. Whilst Fup’s figure is sometimes a little unwieldy to animate, particularly walk, solo, the toddler Tiny, also made by the incomparable Lyndie Wright, is completely compelling and supports a very moving rendering of Tiny’s melodramatic early life.
With the tight cast of six, the world of the production is richly woven, supported by a vivid, lurid lighting design (Malcolm Rippeth) that’s beautifully synchronised with, and counterpointed by, the live score. Rosanna Vize’s great, playful barn of a set conjures the wide open spaces of the story’s original setting, and is full of surprising touches, complete with ever-bubbling still, and even harbouring an audacious Buster Keaton homage towards the end.
Puppetry, song, multi-role-playing, storytelling are spun together with the vivid underscore into the sort of tight, collaborative company aesthetic that exhilarates in performance (though occasionally felt a little lost in the cold, massive space at the Nuffield). Simon’s Harvey’s production, whilst sometimes a little more on the nose in the dramatisation of characters whose emotional worlds can accrue more steadily in the novel, creates a vivid new world of Dodge’s idiosyncratic tale, and the production invites us all to the party.