Feature in Issue 22-1 | Spring 2010

Marie Kenny dives into the world of puppetry and animation, as witnessed at London’s first festival of adult puppetry in over twenty-five years.

Suspense, spearheaded by the Little Angel Theatre’s director Peter Glanville, took place over ten days in October 2009. With an aim to demonstrate the growing range and pull of adult puppetry, 24 UK and international companies brought a huge variety of contemporary puppet performance to London. Suspense also featured a programme of talks and symposia – including an event hosted by the Puppet Centre Trust called Puppetry in the UK, which took a long hard look at the state of the art – and an impressive number of workshops, including a week-long masterclass from the lauded Compagnie Philippe Genty.

The traditional and the experimental sat happily side-by-side, with on the one hand, PuppetCraft’s Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head and on the other hand, a puppetry of hands, light and sound from Tom Duggan, Tom Lyall, & Mischa Twitchin, who presented I Wonder Sometimes Who I Am (reviewed in Total Theatre Magazine Volume 21 Issue 4).

A wide variety of animation techniques and materials were brought together for the festival: everything from paper (Romeo and Juliet by Compagnie Papier theatre) to household objects (Dutch company TAMTAM) to raw clay (Indefinite Articles, Let us Pray). A range of emerging companies were showcased at the Pleasance Theatre – including Bric a Brac, Unpacked and Soap Soup – whilst the festival also brought us national puppetry treasures Faulty Optic, Green Ginger, Horse and Bamboo, and Movingstage.

I took myself to four of the shows on offer, all of which cast an intriguing light on the breadth of puppetry and animation that can be used as a storytelling medium or metaphor.

Full Beam Visual Theatre’s My Baby Just Cares for Me is a touching tribute to the sacrifices and the hard work involved in looking after an elderly relative. A daughter cares for her father, a man who once prided himself on knowing the name of every musician in his album collection. We see his decline and the impact caring for him has on his daughter, Catherine. Adam Fuller presents the father as a series of puppets: as they become smaller and frailer, from human-sized figures at the beginning to small handheld puppets by the end, they are used to show the father’s declining health. As a stark contrast to the fading puppets, film footage is used to emphasise the change, giving visual evidence of the happy memories Catherine has of the younger, lively, dancing man her father used to be. The play focuses heavily on Catherine’s frustrations which are dealt with sensitively through her restless physicality: she’s unable to find peace. At times these physical devices seem repetitive, I wanted her to talk about how she was feeling, but the show makes the point that it’s not an easy subject to talk about.

The Empty Space’s Heartbreak Soup similarly uses puppets to explore difficult emotional territory. Cuddy is an eleven-year-old boy awaiting his second heart transplant. He spends a lot of time in hospital beds and this is where his imagination comes to life – the bed itself is filled with multi-coloured drawers containing objects that evoke memories, and simple cloth puppets are cleverly used to demonstrate his physical and emotional journey through pain. It’s a funny and deeply moving piece which tackles a difficult subject in a way that’s both accessible and enjoyable for children and adults.

Touched Theatre’s Human Remains was inspired by the real-life story of James Tunstall, a northern troublemaker turned African adventurer. His life is encountered through an examination of his belongings: objects collected on his various travels that tell stories of their own – a map, a bow tie, a mug. There are times when the dialogue between the two performers seems slightly awkward, but there are some emotion-filled moments brought about by the manipulation of the objects (whose onstage life is enhanced by the sound design by James Foster) and the images evoked of the entire life that they symbolise.

The most light-hearted of the four, Green Ginger’s Rust is a production bursting with energy – featuring likeable, engaging characters (even the baddie!), gorgeously grotesque puppets, and a surprisingly versatile set which characters and objects burst through, over and around. Rust really puts the fun into innovative and accessible puppetry.

All-in-all the festival was a great success, with such a broad range of work on offer it has provoked much enthusiastic debate about the future of puppetry in theatre. We can excitedly look forward to another Suspense festival in just two years time.

Suspense took place 30 October – 8 November 2009 and was produced by the Little Angel Theatre. Venues presenting work were: The Little Angel, Jacksons Lane, The Nave, the Pleasance Theatre, the Puppet Theatre Barge, Rosemary Branch Theatre, and the Central School of Speech and Drama.

This article in the magazine

Issue 22-1
p. 33