Martin Barron, Josie Daxter, Eugenijus Sergejevas, Ben Thompson
The National Theatre’s production of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse is, in essence, a piece of puppet theatre: the main emotional journey of the play is all tied up with a thing of wire and wood. But, such is the technical brilliance of the puppets and the precision and eloquence with which they are manoeuvred, it is easy to forget this fact.
Blind Summit also makes puppet theatre; “puppetry with attitude” is how they term it. Their work includes the puppets in Anthony Minghella’s Madame Butterfly and their An Odde Angel was one of the imbedded pieces that formed part of Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death.
And while there is nothing in Low Life on the scale of War Horse, the nuance and beauty with which the puppets are brought to life is every bit it’s equal.
Taking its inspiration from the writings of Charles Bukowski, Low Life takes place in dive bar, but one populated by both people and puppets. This setting is really an excuse to string together a series of sketches. A character called Kevin (portrayed by a puppet who is the spit of Kevin Spacey) fights with his wife for one last drink and ends up performing a balletic airborne duet with an empty glass; an elderly cleaning lady gets worked up about the outcome of the book she is reading; a faded star of the stage smokes a cigarette and makes a pass at the bartender; a tiny plumber embarks on a Mission: Impossible-style adventure to fix a leaking pipe; and 1940s B-movie is re-enacted using a series of little blue men.
With the exception of the last sketch the puppeteers are always visible, there is no attempt to conceal them or distract from their manipulations. With up to three people controlling each puppet, the way in which the performers create the movements becomes as fascinating as the puppets themselves. And though the audience can see everything they are doing, this never detracts from the puppets as ‘characters’; it is something of a shock when they are crumpled back into their boxes.
Beautifully executed as these sketches are, what’s missing is a bit of narrative. The barroom setting is the loosest of linking devices and dialogue has been kept to a minimum. Most of the sketches are performed to music, which throws up some oddly tender and beautiful moments, but show suffers from a lack of cohesion and, even at just an hour, it feels thinly stretched at times. Despite these niggles, it is the skill and invention with which the puppets are brought to life that remains in the memory after the show has finished.
Blind Summit’s next project is On Emotion at the Soho Theatre, opening this week, and Low Life makes an ideal appetiser for the main course to come.