Writers: The Old Trout Puppet Workshop
Directors: Peter Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer
There’s something about death and violence which is so much more palatable when portrayed by puppets. Just ask a Punch and Judy performer, or indeed their audience.
Canadian company The Old Trout Puppet Workshop capitalise on that fact with their show Famous Puppet Death Scenes, originally devised in 2006 and making its Barbican debut as part of the London International Mime Festival.
The title is something of a misdirect, of course: these scenes are not famous, because they have been created especially for the show. In the world of the show, though, they have been curated from the world’s greatest puppet shows by ageing collector Nathaniel Tweak, who has scoured the world for scripts and puppets to add to his collection. Tweak is himself a marionette: he has burnished walnut, rather than skin, in the game.
Set within (and, often, without) a traditional puppeteer’s booth, what follows are a series of silly, macabre and sometimes incredibly poignant skits, performed by puppeteers Louisa Ashton, Aya Nakamura and Teele Uustani.
Each scene is prefaced by a display of its title and “author”, including such delightful, pseudo-Dickensian concoctions as Samuel Groanswallow, Sarah Phweet and, in a series of recurring scenes, Nordo Frot.
One of the best sketches involves a hilarious take on children’s television characters, with German conical puppets Bipsy and Mumu talking in a half-German, half-nonsense language that could have easily come from dubbed versions of The Teletubbies or In the Night Garden. This being an evening of death scenes, they, of course, are not long for this world: the manner of their demise is certainly not for pre-schoolers but fits in completely with the slightly demented demeanour of the whole evening.
Not all of the evening’s skits work quite so well – a scene involving a large popup book whose turning pages see us approaching a house from which seems to emanate the sounds of some terrible violence ends up going nowhere, for example. But on the many more often occasions when the company’s madcap, surreal creations work, everything flies.
And while most of the evening encourages us to laugh at increasingly silly manners of death being despatched on wooden creations, there is still much room for pathos. Tweak’s final appearance is slow, careful, beautifully articulated and heartbreaking.
And that is the key to The Old Trout’s appeal. These death scenes may not have started out as famous, but by the end of their hour, you very much hope they will become so.
Continues until 28 January 2023