'The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean' – Shona Reppe Puppets
Shona Reppe has been delighting audiences north of the border with her puppetry inventions, design and performance for the past 10 years. Her memorable design work on Catherine Wheels' 'White' in 2010 brought her work to wider attention. That featured an all-white stage peopled by a forest of perfect white birdhouses, which gradually revealed interiors full of miniature surprises and striking, uncontainable colours. 'The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean' at the Barbican offers a significant showcase of her work in London.
Ingenious is a word often associated with Reppe's work. She's that rare hybrid in the puppet world: gifted as both maker and performer. As she sweeps on the sterile, plastic square of her stage, we're carried along by the wryly authoritative presence in her performance. Children in the audience revel in her preposterous confidence in the concept of a 'scrapologist', whose work involves analysing the hidden clues held in a freshly discovered scrapbook.
But there is much for grown-ups to appreciate too, in the arch observations of this pleasingly dysfunctional character. The show is initially framed somewhere between a corporate presentation and an MI5 briefing, as our intrepid pseudo scientist licks her lips at the prospect of new discoveries in a mysterious Victorian scrapbook.
The performance is accompanied by precision design. From the first revelation of the eponymous book, all cracked leather binding and yellowed linen paper, setting up a delicious contrast with the thrusting modern world of the scrapologist's lab, it's clear we're in masterful design hands. Reppe and her collaborator Gill Robertson have created a richly engaging world whose treasures, in the form of the relics of everyday minutiae (literally and metaphorically), spill from the scrapbook's pages.
Carefully crafted objects – beautifully made period train tickets to pop-up origami houses – spring into miniature view. There are tiny pegs on which to hang carefully extracted hairs, and rows of identical evidence bags in which to tweezer selected problematic items. We are in a puppet maker's dream laboratory, and what makes it even more intriguing? The absence of the puppet herself.
For Josephine Bean is a missing heroine, much labelled but exceedingly hard to find (for reasons I won't give away here). This is a puppet show in search of a puppet, and Reppe and her team leave no ingenious stone unturned in their suggestion of her presence through skilful and inventive animation of the world and objects around her.
The show is a multi sensory experience. The whiff of a piece of seaweed triggers the rolling sound of the sea; memories are unlocked from the pages' clues as moving images and surrounding voices and soundscape fill the theatre (making strong use of Jonathan Charles' understated video design and beautiful compositions by Danny Krass). The show was, justifiably, nominated for a Total Theatre Award as well as winning the TMW Award for best children show in 2012.
In the world of children's theatre, Josephine Bean's scrapbook is a curious thing indeed: an original and captivating idea executed with wit and style, and made vivid throughout using puppetry techniques gently uncoupled from the puppet herself.
'The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean'
Shona Reppe Puppets