'Swamp Juice' - Bunk Puppets
Soho Theatre, London
Entering into Bunk Puppet's Swamp Juice set at the Soho Theatre, looked more like someone had hung their old toys to dry on a clothes line above, while the battered ones still laid lifeless below on the ground. An empty white screen awaited to one side, rubber heads stared from the back, and bits of cardboard shapes were scattered everywhere. We soon learn that a special someone is Mr Bunk himself, (Canadian Jeff Achtem), appearing in waistcoat with great frizzy sideburns, red plaid skirt, leggings, and aviator goggles.
Mr Bunk told the swamp-set story of a man trying to retrieve his 'birdy' while being pursued by a toothy, gurgling monster. This is achieved with very few lines of actual coherent language, much grunting, and a vast array of superb, technically clever shadow puppets fabricated from pieces of rubbish. What felt at times a lunatic’s ramblings through a junkyard toy room, is clearly the opposite - an absolute masterpiece of theatre constructed by an over-talented puppeteer/ clown/ festival street-performer.
I was often torn between watching the constructed shadow image on the screen or Jeff's on-stage comic creation of it. To have constantly laughed in anticipation throughout, and then to have spent several post-show hours reliving the moments trying to remember every last finger puppet is a testament to its ability to entertain adults and the numerous children alike. Children with their perfect exclamations such as: "I'm not scared, they're just puppets".
After 45 exhausting minutes of punk-haired snails, scrolling underwater scenes, and hungry baby birds, we, as an audience, were then treated to two of the most mesmerizingly entertaining scenes I have shared with a group of strangers.
As scattered members of the 1st three rows raised their arms to twist and shake their dangly rubber toys, Mr. Bunk wandered through, between and behind them with an LED torch and a tiny swimming birdy, creating a magical multi-layered underwater world in shadow that arrived at a man in a carrot suit. As if only a teaser, he soon brought it all to a complete close with the epic, (and contradictorily impossible) 3D-shadow finale that still has me stumped as to its workings.
Jeff's training with contemporary-Muppetesque puppeteer Neville Tranter and shadow artist Richard Bradshaw shows through onstage in his personal conglomeration of style. He has successfully combined Tranter’s rich characters and onstage puppeteer-persona with Bradshaw’s endlessly clever and inventive scenes of transformation. Hats off to Jeff; the soundtrack composers for a wonderful score; and the technical team for presenting a truly original piece of puppet theatre. "Swim Birdy Swim!".