'The Devil and Mister Punch' - Improbable
The Barbican, London
Improbable's masterpiece The Devil and Mister Punch is a fitting tribute to the first recorded Mr Punch in 1662, 350 years ago this year. It contains all the wife beating, baby throwing, sausage chasing shenanigans we would expect from a Punch and Judy show, along with Harvey and Hovey, bowler-hatted clown puppeteers played with exuberance and pathos in equal measure by Nick Haverson and Rob Thirtle. They add a contemporary twist, exploring the puppeteer's role with virtuosity and sleight of hand as they deliver songs, gags and deliciously ham acting alongside exquisite puppetry.
The wooden panelled set holds all the excitement of a giant advent calendar, windows opening and faces appearing to share their puppety gifts with the audience. A super-long arm reaches down to deliver a love letter to the musician below (Saskia Lane). Punch makes his long walk to the gallows accompanied by a tune on the handbells, played by puppets and men popping out from an ever changing selection of doors, hatches and windows in the nick of time. We see big faces as framed portraits in tiny windows, and other art references too – Fragonard's swing, and the Dante-esque scenes of hell in opulent gilded frames.
Punch is sent to hell, and horrifically seems to be the only one alive amongst piles of rotting puppet corpses. 'What have I done?' he asks as he explores the terrible landscape. 'The stench! It's horrible, horrible!' says Punch. 'These are the ones we don't use anymore,' explains Mr Harvey darkly.
The Devil and Mister Punch is poignant and darkly funny. We feel empathy for this murderous, child-abusing little puppet character and decidedly uncomfortable when the Devil looks out at the audience with his black beady eyes and weighs us up. 'Look at them, all looking in the same direction, blank needy faces trying to figure it all out,' squeals Punch as he struggles to endear himself to the Devil. The humour exits fast however, when Mr Punch enters the stage life-sized, no puppeteer attached and brandishing a baseball bat.
It's a great show. That's the way to do it!