350 years on from the invention of the Punch and Judy puppet show, Improbable Theatre have brought the character alive in their stage show 'The Devil and Mister Punch.' Colin Hambrook shook with laughter at the last performance of the show at the Barbican on 25 February.
On the back of assisting my visually-impaired partner, I was lucky enough to get to be part of an audio-described touch tour, half an hour before the performance. After a brief description of the stage itself, the group were given a hands-on sense of the creative ingenuity that has gone into the puppet-making and the props for the performance. Being able to feel the visceral, sticky quality of the puppets in all their magical glory, added life to the enjoyment of this wickedly humorous celebration of death and the darker side of the imagination.
The touch tour also gave a real insight into the secret world behind the stage. We were given the privilege of being taken inside the box in which the six puppeteers / actors / musicians contort with a thousand and one props. It made you appreciate more, the craft and skill of the artistry involved.
We also got up close to the set - an installation that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Louise Bourgeois exhibition with its oak panel, architectural interior/ exterior; suggesting home as a place of confinement and unexpected, untimely surprises, with its' several windows and concealed openings.
Improbable do many things. They have an excellent track record for producing accessible theatre. Their policy of having at least two touch tours and two BSL performances in a run, is much more than most companies achieve. As well as programming productions by disabled artists (Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spense’s excellent 'No Idea' in 2010, which evolved out of the decibel 09 showcase) - they also actively promote their Devoted and Disgruntled Open Space events to disabled performers.
Improbable are also part of a new tradition of physical theatre, puppetry and mime - as used in productions by companies like Punch Drunk, Told by an Idiot and Forkbeard Fantasy.
In terms of style and approach 'The Devil and Mister Punch' bore resemblance to a previous much-loved visionary nightmare created by Improbable founders Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch – namely ‘Shockheaded Peter.’ The show carries a similar fascination with the beauty of the macabre, relishing in the darkest of humours, with a breathtaking energy.
In the deft hands of the central characters of real-life 19th century puppet masters, Harvey and Hovey, we are taken on a journey of murder and moral decline. A scene where puppet master Harvey tells the shameless Mister Punch unequivocally that he is a murderer, and that that is the reason for his descent into hell, is hammed-up beyond all measure, with all the pizazz of a ringmaster bellowing outrageous commands to his stage creations.
The Devil and Mister Punch brings the magic of theatre to the fore in beautiful scenes such as the skeleton dance - with all the colour and atmosphere of a scene reminiscent of the Mexican Day of the Dead. The use of lighting brings all to life, whilst playing with scale and tempo with an imaginative dexterity.
We see puppet characters suddenly jump from small to enormous. We see Mister Punch in jail, through one of the smaller side windows. The puppet master shouts "let's see him in close-up" and another window opens where we see the hooked nose and large chin of the same character, ten times bigger. Actors put on puppet costumes and puppets come on dressed up as the actors. The whole thing makes for maniacal theatre, held in place by a lush score on bass fiddle and piano, and peppered with reflective song.
If there was one character I'd have liked to have seen more of in the narrative, it was The Devil. There were a stream of entertaining bit parts: a band of acrobatic pigs who meet a terrible end when they arrive to play in a village desperate for food; a typewriting dog; a bull who tragically falls in love with a female matador: but having become acquainted with several versions of The Devil puppets during the touch tour, I was expecting to see him more gainfully employed in the narrative.
There is something a little too archetypal about the English character of Mister Punch. In contemporary imagination he is the disabled man, the hunchback who epitomises evil. But his Italian origin in the form of Pulcinella (meaning little chicken) has more sides to his character; and more could have been drawn out to subvert the stereotype. I might be talking out of turn, but I would have liked to have seen a more engaged relationship to the devil, other than simply running away! Having said that, the chase scenes through Bosch-like, stygian landscapes, were images that will remain with me, for their haunting beauty.
I hope to publish some comment on Improbable’s Devoted and Disgruntled event, which happened the same weekend, so watch this space!