FIRSTS Festival – Little Angel Theatre
This year the Little Angel’s FIRSTS Festival presented four brand new puppet shows for adults.
The opener was Monstro Theatre’s 'Bookstory', set in a library that has seen better days. There’s Brian, the head librarian, recovering from a crippling loss; Seymour, a lonely children’s book that gets sold off to help the library raise funds; and a merry band of genre novels that attempt to reverse the library’s fortunes. It’s a very good-looking show with a fine set and puppets (though I don’t envy anyone the task of making a puppet out of a book – too inflexible a spine), but it is an expanded version of a shorter piece and at times feels it. The occasional musical numbers are fun but redundant, rarely telling us anything new about the characters or advancing the plot. 'Bookstory' suffers from a slow pace and characters that tend to be acted upon rather than show much agency, but you can sense there is a nugget of a very good idea here that needs a bit more work to justify an hour length.
Next up is 'Lab Rat' by Genius Sweatshop. Spencer is a single father with precious few means to support his daughter. Thus he signs up for medical tests – with cash compensation. It seems fine and easy (if weird) at first, but soon it becomes clear that the experiments will exact a heavy price on poor Spencer. A darkly humorous, well crafted piece, 'Lab Rat' hangs on the performance of Michael Wagg as Spencer. He portrays Spencer as a flawed, nervous but essentially good man, and his likeability acts as an emotional anchor for the audience during the play’s more surreal moments. The puppets do not appear much, but when they do they make an impression. A naked, angry Spencer doppleganger puppet threatens to steal the show, and I liked how seemingly whimsical puppetry elements are later revealed as harbingers of Spencer’s fate. Overall I felt this was the strongest show of the festival.
'Angeleta and Etelvina' by Around the Glove, deals with the difficult subject of senior dementia. Two sisters have lived together all their lives, but now Angeleta, in her twilight years, must deal with the hard fact that Etelvina is becoming increasingly lost in the fog of dementia, and must soon leave to live out her days in a care home. The best part of the show is the puppetry: clearly a lot of work has been done developing their histories and movements. They complain and tease and comfort one another as only family can. Unfortunately, visually the show is hampered by an unappealing set design. A recurring joke, that the puppet has to keep asking a puppeteer to fetch props, is funny the first time, but by the eighth time we realise this is a set that hinders the puppeteers more than it helps. More critically, the plot lacks a sense of urgency needed to give the final days of these sisters together dramatic weight.
'Patent Pedrick' by Handheld Arts, is the unusual story of Arthur Pedrick, a man just starting retirement and terrified of the long years of inactivity and loneliness before him. His discovery of Ginger, a friendly cat, gives him some much-needed companionship, and inspires an inventive frenzy. Featuring a highly inventive, retro-60s style and a charming lead puppet in Ginger (the only character to speak in the play), 'Patent Pedrick' is an absolute joy to watch, with the company finding seemingly endless ways to tell the story. An impressive set piece features the recreation of Arthur’s giant water distribution machine in front of the audience – a remarkably bizarre creation that does, in its fashion, complete its task. The show took a little while to find its footing and, considering some characters were masked and silent, I thought the physical performances could be improved upon (a little LeCoq never hurt anyone!), but this show is a real treat, with a quiet little gut punch of an ending.
Little Angel Theatre