Welcome to Massiveville, which is in fact a small town populated by puppets. It has a local shop selling overpriced vegetables, a pub, a cottage hospital, and a recreational ground where young people take drugs and make out. Its puppet population includes old codger Howard, whiny middle-class teenager Suki who is like so sick of her parents, local cop Clive who’s seen it all, hippy-dippy Dinah who believes in fairies and omens, and nosey-parker Tina who likes a jammy dodger with her tea. Oh and Daz – Darrell – who’s an experimental theatre-maker, when he’s not being a stoner ‘ripped to the tits’. There’s been a local disaster – the beanstalk has fallen – and Daz is going to make a play about it, using the local villagers.
And so we have the set-up – a play about puppets putting on a play about Jack and the Beanstalk, a story that we would view as a fairy-tale: ‘a kind of verbatim true-crime, puppet docudrama’ as Blind Summit would have it.
The puppets are beautifully made Bunraku-style rod puppets with moveable jaws, perched on portable, wheeled stools and benches. They are marvellous creations – each puppet a larger-than-life character with an array of physical tics (literally, in one case) that give them a totally credible air of real existence. The choreography is brilliant – by Carolyn Choa, widow of film director Anthony Minghella, and co-creator with him of the lauded ENO opera Madama Butterfly, for which Blind Summit created the puppetry. The stools and benches bear their puppets aloft, flying across the stage into their places for their solo speeches, flocking and deflocking into ensemble groups. The five puppeteers in head-to-toe blacks are mostly Blind Summit veterans – artistic director Mark Down isn’t amongst them, but Laura Caldow (the feet of Moses in Blind Summit’s other current touring show, The Table), Simon Scardfield (Winston in the company’s version of 1984), Fiona Clift, and Jake Waring are here. And they are joined by Samuel Dutton, another highly experienced puppeteer. So there is skill aplenty in the production, which is a visual delight.
Mark Down’s writing is witty and edgy, but as is sometimes the case with Blind Summit, they have trouble sustaining a full-length show. There just isn’t enough to the story. Once we’ve got that this is a a modern fable about greed, acquisition and financial gain, based on a retelling of the classic British fairytale; and once we have met and heard from all the delightful characters, then that’s it. Where’s the drama, is the question. There’s a beginning, a fizzling out middle, and nothing in the way of an ending. It feels more like a comic sketch than a play, and would have made a fantastic 15 or 20 minutes, but there just isn’t enough in the way of an exploration of ideas or unfolding story to sustain it for an hour. By the half-way mark I feel I’ve got it, and long for something to shake things up.