From the co-creators of the acclaimed puppet-theatre show Cell, In Our Hands is a gentle and almost hypnotic exploration of the issues around Cornish trawler fishing – the isolation, poverty and will to succeed that makes both the occupation and the performance itself one of increasingly high stakes and tension.
Smoking Apple’s aim here, as specified in the programme, was to make something innovative. To achieve this, they have created a piece which has a discernible performative language all of its own, the strong dramaturgical guidance of Red Threaders’ Gemma Williams being consistently visible. Communication throughout is often wordless, relying instead on the muttered calls of the trawler team to set the scene – an imaginative reflection of the ensemble work needed in such an arduous task. Combined with this is extensive use of wonderfully varied puppetry; paper becomes birds, tiny boats sail vast green fishing nets to symbolise long journeys, and there is excellent comic relief in the form of a persistent and perky seagull puppet, manipulated in to the jerky and startled movements familiar of its breed, and forever searching indignantly for its latest snack.
Our key characters of elderly trawlerman Alf and his son are illustrated through actors holding a simple head and a hand body piece each and using their own bodies to fully capture their characters’ physicality. This style lends a rhythmic and slightly other-worldly feel to the piece, underscored as it is with an almost constant soundtrack of sounds of the sea and atmospheric music. Once I had become familiar with the language of the production (and managed to damp down my inherent need for words!) I became entirely absorbed in it, rooting for protagonist Alf, the impoverished elderly fisherman who still has his dead wife’s voice on his answerphone and seems to be drowning in debts, caused in no small part by a dependency on drink to see him through the freezing lonely nights.
The device of conveying information via answerphone messages is frequently repeated, allowing for the communication of some exposition in a way which fits entirely with the narrative style. In this form, we discover that Alf’s (unnamed) son, working in PR in London and missing the sea, is desperate to help his father, if only Alf will let him.
There follows a sequence where Alf visits London, a more apt depiction of a fish being out of water being hard to imagine! There, his drinking escalates and a crisis point is reached from which there seems to be no resolution, imaginatively shown through an extended montage sequence, symbolising drink driving and a pressing need to return home. However, this is a piece ultimately full of hope, and it is this that really won me over. The pull of home is just as strong for Alf’s son, who eventually is able to use his PR skills to help revive Alf’s flagging business in the most satisfying way possible.