Writer: Juliet Middleton
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
“Pride comes before a fall” and “what goes around comes around” are two of our favourite maxims that roughly mean the same thing; if you do bad things expect to be punished for them. While we may live in a more secular age, many people like to think that the universe will eventually even things out, but this idea is far from new. In fact, it is at the heart of several of Aesop’s fables, which The Puppet Theatre Barge in Little Venice is performing before it makes its annual summer pilgrimage to Richmond.
At well over 2500 years old, it would be easy to imagine that Ancient Greek fables have little relevance to modern children living in a digital media age. But human behaviour rarely changes, so the neat aphorisms that fill Aesop’s stories are as meaningful now as they were millennia ago, and judging by the captivated audience at the Puppet Theatre Barge, have as much to say to adults as their children.
This 75-minute show has two long and three shorter stories about the interaction between various creatures during a couple of days in the forest. First, the audience is introduced to a sleepy lion who is frequently disturbed by passers-by including a fox, a mouse and gnat, all operated as independent and charmingly traditional marionettes. Having smugly chastised the mouse, the lion is then tormented by a gnat before a group of hunters capture him and he has to be rescued.
Having beaten the lion, the gnat goes on to meet a spider who weaves an elaborate web to capture its prey. Here, prop creators Gren and Juliet Middleton excel themselves as the web is slowly raised from the stage floor as though the spider is making it, only to have its own plans foiled by the sudden onset of a raging storm created with flashing, and rather sinister lights, as well as a rustling plastic curtain to cleverly denote the look and sound of sheet rain.
After a slightly overlong interval in which many of the children became quite restless, two little stories are presented that didn’t have any clear moral point of their own. The tale of the mice being too scared to attach a bell to the cat, and a goat outfoxing a fox, were well presented using a combination of marionettes and stick puppets in shadow, but were over so quickly there was too little time to understand their purpose.
Although incredibly familiar to most grown-ups, the final story of The Hare & the Tortoise was engagingly presented with a nice jungle backdrop (designed by Susan Beattie, David Welsh and LWTV Scenic Studios) and plenty of bunting to denote a serious race between the animals. The show uses a combination of story-telling devices including straight dialogue, action sections set to Rory Allam’s individual music for each creature and a pre-recorded narrator voiced by Rudolf Walker – familiar to many as Patrick from Eastenders – who adds an omniscience feel to proceedings. Middleton’s script is enough to give each tale sufficient shape, while never patronising or dumbing-down the language.
It’s not easy to hold the attention of a room full of small children for over an hour, but The Puppet Theatre Barge’s latest show manages to engage them in the story-telling as the wonder aloud what will happen next. Adults too will be charmed by the magical quality of these ancient tales while marvelling at the skills of puppeteers Elizabeth Barron, Edie Edmundson, Sarah Fitzpatrick and Stan Middleton. And if Aesop is right and you get back the things you put into the world, then this show is sure to be a big success.
Runs until 9 July 2017 | Image: Contributed