'The Shop of Little Horrors' – Pickled Image
In the great horror tradition of associating ventriloquist dummies with madness and murder, ‘The Shop of Little Horrors’ is a disturbing and dark comical treat from macabre theatre experts Pickled Image. Not to be confused with the similarly named musical (famed for its carnivorous plants), this play is set in a run down old workshop, operated by a barmy puppet maker named Albert Grimlake. He specialises in traditional wooden ventriloquist dummies, each lovingly crafted and freakishly life-like.
Seeking an apprentice, Albert employs Eric, a young man whose own love of puppets stems more from Sesame Street than vaudeville. As Eric enters the shop wearing a Kermit the Frog jumper and showing off a singing, neon fur glove puppet he made at home, Albert decides his new employee will take some serious mentoring to become a true puppet craftsman.
The setting is perfectly grisly, with exposed wires, dirty stained walls and puppet teeth and eyeballs scattered about the workshop table, giving a sinister, 'scene of the crime' kind of feel. The vent dummies themselves are exquisitely made, with staring eyes and large, bony hands – each with its own outfit and personality.
The warped beauty of these puppets is testament to the craftsmanship of Albert but of course in reality also to that of Pickled Image themselves. Through their dilapidated shop and its wooden inhabitants, they deliver a convincing miniature horror vortex, complete with foreboding atmosphere.
The cast of two (including Pickled Image company director Dik Downey, who exudes energy as Grimlake) double up roles, enabling four characters in total to strut the stage at various times. Apart from the naive Eric (played sweetly and with genuine likeability by Adam Blake), all characters wear latex masks that are slightly grotesque but brilliantly rendered, helping you to buy into each character more readily.
Grimlake's fascination with his deceased, overbearing mother is certainly a nod to Norman Bates but, as his grisly secrets start to surface and a murderous plot ensues, you realise Pickled Image's influences are as varied as Grimlake's own jars of colourful puppet eyes. Performed with quick costume changes and brilliant energy, the show is also written intelligently, mixing murder, obsession and the macabre in a style similar to the 'The League of Gentleman' but with a level of intensity that can only be found in live performance.
Both performers possess excellent puppetry and ventriloquism skills – the best showcase of this is when a full-blown argument between the performers and their puppets creates a hilarious but psychologically disturbing climax, questioning our notion of when the performer ends and the puppet begins. This confusion between humanity and puppetry is made all the more intense through the inclusion of the first man/ventriloquist dummy French kiss that this reviewer has ever seen. Adam Blake certainly earns his money!
'The Shop of Little Horrors'
Produced by Pickled Image and The North Wall
Directed by Emma Williams
Dramaturg Adam Peck
Composer and sound design by Simon Preston
Lighting design and technician Anna Barrett
Set/puppet design and construction Pickled Image
Puppet making Pickled Image, Emma Powell, Rebecca Prior
Costume by Jenny Reeves