FIRSTS festival 2014
This March, the Little Angel Theatre's FIRSTS festival, premiered new works from young, emerging puppetry companies.
The festival opens with ‘Buttons’ by Sort of Theatre, a deeply ambitious show about the holocaust. Every puppet has a button for a face, and those simple buttons, obsessively collected by the Nazis from their victims, become a compelling symbol of the holocaust’s dehumanisation. The show is framed by performers Dana Segal and Joni-Rae Carrack’s description of their real life experiences visiting Poland and the Auschwitz camps. Segal, a Jew, tells of her older family’s personal experiences of the Nazi holocaust, and these flashbacks are then animated in puppet form by Carrack.
One affecting scene has Segal’s grandfather, or Sabbah, take a plate of sandwiches intended for his grandchildren and methodically scoff them down himself. A large puppet with the face of a button, Sabbah’s actions at first seem comical. Yet Sabbah does not stop, rigorously eating food that was meant for others. The audience begins to suspect we are seeing the psychological scars of a man who, for many years, had to struggle for scraps to survive. A powerful, simple story whose puppetry scenes, while infrequent, are extremely effective. ‘Buttons’ is definitely a show with great potential.
Cat in the Cupboard
A gear change, with the light-hearted ‘Cat in the Cupboard’ by Tiny Light, the only show in the festival programme specifically aimed at children. Cat follows Linnet, a young girl whose family is expecting a new baby. Linnet is suddenly shoved into a position of responsibility when the upstairs neighbour entrusts her with the care of her beloved cat, David Bowie. Yes, David Bowie. In seemingly no time at all Linnet fails in her duties, and David Bowie becomes an increasingly gigantic monster cat.
The central performance by Ceri Ashcroft as Linnet is full of energy and does a good job of holding the narrative together, and the constantly shifting sets and scenery keeps things lively. But the show doesn’t seem finished. The puppetry is underdeveloped, with David Bowie represented by a cut-out photo of a cat face on cardboard, which doesn’t allow for much subtlety of performance. Worse, (beware: spoilers!) the writing seems incomplete, with the giant cat situation resolving itself during a dream sequence without any real action on the part of the heroine, or any indication that she’s learned anything from the adventure. The show, effectively, lacks an ending.
LAMA Creative’s ‘London Under’ was presented incomplete. As a concession, the LAMAs offered tickets for free and asked the audience only for feedback to view what is a very promising start.
A young woman becomes lost in the catacombs beneath London, encountering the creatures of London myth. Much of the show is played in the dark, with flashlights illuminating the scuttling of sentient piles of trash and the faces of trolls in trenchcoats. It is these mostly silent moments illuminating an alien ecology that fascinate the most: we watch as twitchy organisms compete for space atop a pile of discarded luggage, and are surprised by the appearance of two enormous eyes.
The show benefits from having up to five puppeteers onstage at once, so giants can share space with bats and shadow puppets, creating several layers of action. The story itself suffers from underdevelopment but, with work, this unfinished show could become something very interesting indeed.
The concluding act, a collaboration between Smoking Apples and Little Cauliflower called ‘Cell’. Ted, a man just diagnosed with motor neurone disease, goes on one last adventure, accompanied by his pet fish. On the surface it seems a weighty task for a play, something that could easily be either pretentious or depressing. Yet the show is a fabulous example of puppetry done right, and in terms of performance and presentation, it's the most polished production of the festival.
There is a fantastic sense of precision about it, from the movements of Ted, to the carefully demarcated positions of props and tools amidst the set, to the subtle yet effective use of the puppeteers as occasional actors – at times they become nurses, at times obnoxious theatre goers, all done with great control and confidence.
Shifting between bunraku-style puppetry and elegant shadow puppetry, ‘Cell’ is one of those rare shows that educates about a tragedy, while presenting a very human story with warmth, compassion and, it must be said, some of the best puppeteering of the festival. ‘Cell’ is, as such, a great festival end note, proving that young companies can be capable of great things.
This was also part of the festival but presented at stage where the company, Touched Theatre, were not ready for reviews.
Little Angel Theatre