The London Mime Festival 2013 – Puppet Show Reviews

I was lucky enough to see three performance from the fantastic London Mime Festival this year (two as a birthday present to myself!) Here are my reviews for The Heads, Hand Stories and Savannah

 

The Heads – Blind Summit – 17th January (matinee) – Soho Theatre

I really hate to have to start my review like this because I’m worried how it might be taken.

But here we go.

I must admit I’ve been somewhat conflicted by this performance. Do not get me wrong, I really enjoyed The Heads and was glad I managed to catch it at this years London Mime Festival. There were many moments that worked beautifully … and yet there were many moments which felt a little clunky. But I feel I’m getting ahead of myself. I didn’t even mean for that to be a pun but it sort of is and I don’t think I can delete it…

We walked into the Soho theatre to be faced with three picture frames which were lit underneath. Inside the frames is blackness, a blank canvas for the kind of puppetry kind of object manipulation that is to follows. There are some very magical and beautiful images that seem to appear out of no-where due to the clever use of light and puppeteers dressed in black.

So we get – Three floating heads, pairs of hands that all take turns to read a book, letters dropping from the space forming letters ‘accidentally’, the view of the horizon from a train made by what I believe to be thin bars.

The magic behind these scenes and what made them so exciting was that they fired up the imagination. Our brains were asked to fill in the dots, to complete the pictures I enjoyed was feeling my brain click these images to

And yet with all, there a moments the piece did feel slow. It felt that every image enjoyed it’s time was registered and processed by the brain and then didn’t move onto something new. These extended moments weren’t indulgent. The more I think of it the more I think I enjoyed the quick surprises I had when objects, head, hands etc popped up from no-where, like I was the receiving end of a game of peek-a-boo. There is where this piece’s charm lies. So the bits where we stayed with the same image felt a bit slower.

Basically I’m a puppet junkie and I needed lots of small doses

Maybe it was a lack of any theme that I could see immediately. I don’t think it was a lack of narrative. But with the fantastic visuals and intuitive ideas, I struggled sometimes to piece together how they were connected. Maybe they weren’t supposed to be connected and instead it was a showcase of ideas and illusions; and there is nothing actually wrong with that.

Oh course maybe there was nothing wrong with the piece but everything was wrong with the two American tourists who were grumbling behind me all the way through before spending about 5 minutes deciding whether they would slip out.

It remind me of a practical dissertation. I’m a recent graduate and the one thing I wish I could do was go back to university and spend a day playing with one idea and see how material you could get out of it. This is what The Heads felt like. I was happy to have so many ideas shown to me but it feels like it still has a potential to go somewhere?

I’m excited by Blind Summit’s work because there always seems to be something different with it. As far as I can see (as just a punter and not someone who has had a chance to see a rehearsal *) every piece of work is a new piece of work and is an exploration of puppetry, pushing it ever further. Blind Summit present to me things I haven’t seen before or ideas I haven’t ever considered. That is wonderful to have; companies which make you think about your craft are a fantastic inspiration. Even though I wasn’t completely blown away by The Heads it hit the nail on the head with the two types of performance I find good. The 1) Oh that was awesome type of show and the 2) Oh… I need to try that type of show.

I had a few ideas pop into my head while watching this performance and that is what I’ve been left with. A bit of inspiration, a few ideas and a dash of motivation. That’s what you get from the best companies.

*I took part at a work shop taken Blind Summit’s Mark Down, along with, during the Puppet Centre Trust’s Puppetry in Opera Event last November. I felt lucky that I managed to do some quick, spur of the moment paper puppetry with the man himself and I really admire his energy, insight and playfulness. It really reminded me of the best days I had in University. I felt very inspired working with him even if it was just for a morning. So this is the impression I get from Blind Summit’s process. And I like it.

 

Hand Stories – Yeung Fai – 17th January – Barbican Pit Theatre

 

All I really have to say about this particular performance is that at one point I actually said out loud “No way!” when I’m the sort of person that would rarely, if ever, speak during a performance even in a whisper.

But I suppose I need to put a bit more effort into this review. The reason for my outburst is that I saw puppeteer Yeung Fai manipulate two puppets one of which was spinning plates. It is an amazing surprise and incredibly impressive. Yeung Fai is probably the most technically perfect puppeteer I have ever seen. His puppetry look simple, playful and yet out of reach making it even more mystical.

Considering Fai’s background as a third generation puppeteer, it is obvious how he became so skilled. This is the story that Fai tells in Hand Stories using an array of beautiful hand puppets of colourful stock characters (such as two fighters, heroes and idiots and a tiger) and his own ancestors. There is even a beautiful moment where he puppeteers a puppet who is also puppeteering. That’s puppet-cenption

This is a hard one to review because I really loved it and this could be a love letter to the show. I also want people to see the show and I hope it goes on tour because some of the puppeteering has to be seen to be fully appreciated. I don’t think I could do it justice.

It showcased a very beautiful way of exploring autobiographical work. It combines real footage of Fai’s grandfather and father performing, metaphorical representations to quick share the story that could become too historically detailed (ie. the oppressive Chinese government is simple represented by a stunning dragon and a Queen [the band that is] loving angel), short traditional puppet theatre scenes and even a chance to see the point of view of a very skilled puppeteer

The sort of puppetry that makes me feel like a fraud for calling myself a puppeteer. But it also shows with dedication what on person can achieve and weave together images to a fantastic bit of puppet theatre.

 

 

Savanna: A Possible Landscape – Amit Drori – 23rd Jan – Barbican Pit Theatre

 

Savanna is a bit of a weird one. It is on the one hand the true (as confirmed by the Q&A after the show) story of a son, a mother and a piano told through a voice over. On the other it is a glimpse into the beautiful and brutal African savannah. Well, at least I can’t be sure with the piano bit. I found that a bit confusing or at least I missed something pretty vital. The animal that populate the world are very intuitive robots. Some are fully remotely controlled like a charming tortoise (ironically one of the faster animals as it was on wheels) and some had some automated movement that was complimented by a puppeteer manipulating its moment.

I like robots. I’m part of the generation that grew up with Robot Wars. So I was pretty excited and impressed to see the skill that went into making these robot/puppets.

But they are unbearably slow at times. Unfortunately that is what took me out of the moment and I became quite bored with the show, except for the few moments when the robots were revealed for the first time. This was especially noteable during a moment when one of the animals is shot and it took a long time, not only to unplug her (signalling it’s death which was a little clever) but for another animal to turn around and notice it had died. The sound of the gun going off, killing the animal seemed significantly less dramatic with the anti-climax that followed.

I think also missed the breath that I find so important in my own work as a puppeteer and is one of my favourite things to do for a puppet. I made up narrative in my own imagination for what these creatures were thinking or doing, but it wasn’t the same as having As much as it was a puppeteer that had to operate the puppet, it wasn’t a direct manipulation. All of these seemed to have created too much of a barrier for me to enjoy the piece.

The space was a hindrance. The Pit Theatre had it’s usual raked seating but also three rows of seats on the floor level. The staged was also raised but not enough. I had two rows of chairs in front of me and at point I couldn’t see what was happening. There’s nothing that disconnects an audience member from a performance then a broken sight line. Which is a shame really and should have been considered by the company or the Barbican. I paid the same amount as someone whose view was unrestricted. So it was a bit frustrating I think the performance could have benefited from being more intimate as well. I was asked to be part of this exotic environment and I just couldn’t be. I was very aware I was in a theatre.

I think I could have liked this show but there were so many moments that disengaged me as an audience member I was quite glad when it had finished.

I’m sorry to say it because I appreciate the imagination and intelligence that went into a show like this. But the theatre part of the puppet theatre seemed to be missing

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