Jabberwocky : Little Angel Theatre
Having not seen a Little Angel production actually in their own theatre I had a real sense of anticipation, going to see their acclaimed show Jabberwocky. It proved a really mixed experience with moments of fantastic beauty and wonder but also of disappointment and confusion.
The theatre was quite quiet so the audience was spread out comfortably among the small rows of benches. Being a 5pm show and one advertised strictly for the over 5's there were only a small number of children present, sat within the first few rows and isle seats. As a whole the piece was quite dark so many of the children seemed a bit scared, retreating back to be with parents so perhaps over 8 might have been a better age limit. The piece started rather subtly with performers entering down the isle manipulating a very tiny puppet of a small boy with strings. I love puppetry and even as an adult am keen to immerse myself in imagination and see objects and characters come to life. However I was instantly struck by how unreal and un-alive this first puppet appeared. I also instantly disliked how the performers in moments of direct interaction with the audience only played to the children in the audience, totally ignoring our presence. True I have no need of a puppet coming to ruffle my hair but this feeling of being actively avoided was strange. At a later moment in the play when a character walked through the seating, it even seemed as if the puppeteers stopped performing half way back up the isle because there were no more children, disappointing for a show I had paid for and Jabberwocky was not it seemed one of their shows purely aimed at children such as Cindermouse.
The main play took place on the marionette stage, featuring beautiful back lighting, simple sets and a wide range of fun characters. The abstract nature of the poem made the show very dream like, bizarre, random, very visual and abstract, with a sense of a vague over arching narrative holding the piece together. The piece constantly played with scale, swapping regularly between the tiny boy puppet and a larger marionette. In most cases this worked well to give variety and a sense of perspective but unfortunately there were moment of inconsistency which sometimes broke the believability and magic. My main gripe with the show was the movement of the larger boy marionette. Its walking action in particular did an awful floating, jumping thing, with no sense of contact with the floor, weight or control. I had always had the impression that The Little Angel would be the place to see outstanding puppeteering and was utterly disappointed by this unrealistic, seemingly unskilled action before me.
The range of different characters in the story was great and a real treat to see so many different puppets, made of different materials and styles. These characters included two very funny shrimp like creatures, who appeared at random. A large tree like man as featured on the advertising posters, the fish like Jabberwocky and a little group of forest creatures, perhaps reminiscent of a group of witches. I really loved the style of this last little group and the noises they made were very funny. However again there was inconsistency in their movement and a clear lack of direction for the puppeteers. It seemed that important conversations and decisions about who these characters were and there exact range of movements hadn't been undertaken. On entering for the first time they seemed like walking characters, using there long hook like front legs but later they seemed to jump along and at times one just floated in the air a lot. These characters really needed greater consistency.
The play at times moved from the back marionette stage to a front table top area. It was fascinating to see this theatre used to its full potential and experience such a range of puppet styles blended within one piece. At these times the puppeteers were obvious and present, performing with bun-raku style puppets, and working as a team. The puppeteering in this style was exceptional and to the level I had been expecting. The boy character at last transformed into this real creature and I became mesmerised by his movements and sense of life. The movement between characters and puppets by the puppeteers was flawlessly smooth and the range of voices and characters fun and engaging. It took a bit of time and imagination as an audience to adapt to this swapping of styles within the piece but on the whole I thought it was really interesting with great variety.
The set design worked well for the piece and utilised the space very well. There was a clear attempt to mirror the back and front stage areas which was clear though not always totally successful. The puppeteers had to work hard to transform the scenes as well as puppeteering so there were moments of pause or the odd clanking from above but in general there was a nice sense of the 'live' provided by the obvious and active use of puppeteers as stage hands. The puppeteer costumes were black but a bit mix-matched as they did not appear to be totally neutral nor in any particular style. I had the impression the performers may have been asked to simply wear their own blacks rather than having specifically designed pieces which would explain this slight imbalance and clear direction.
The sound track was incredible, loud and very present, with fantastic emotion and range. Recorded using real instruments, voices and sound effects it had the impression of being live and happening in the space. I would love to actually see this show with a live band present to enhance the interaction between puppet and musical sound. The style of the music was contemporary and experimental, not in a typical style of children's theatre which was refreshing and added to the darkness of the piece.
In summery it was a real shame that the show itself just felt a little under rehearsed, the beauty in the artefacts and the potential in the narrative, performances and images were obvious, but just a few details needed addressing before this show could truly immerse me in the fantastical world of the Jabberwocky. Overall this was a really enjoyable show, which generated a great deal of thought and debate. In particular it fed into some of my own personal areas of puppet research and my current design project Deep Heat. It made me question my use of puppeteers as stage hands on a purely practical front but enhanced my love and commitment to the bun-raku style of puppetry and puppetry for an adult audience.