Inspired by: Albert Lamorisse
Directors: Rob Humphreys and Kate Middleton
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Puppetry has grown up and it’s no longer just for children. London is beginning to see a new wave of animated stories with themes and emotional resonances that are equally aimed at tugging the heartstrings of grown-ups as entertaining younger members of the family. The Red Balloon, at The Puppet Theatre Barge in Little Venice, is a rare treat combining a simple story with the abstract classiness of French cinema.
A young boy spurned by his classmates and left to play alone becomes entranced by a red balloon that happens to float across the schoolyard one day. The balloon has a personality of its own which toys with the boy and forces him to catch it as it floats around town pestering acrobatic chimney sweeps and old ladies. But the bullies have set their sights on the balloon and are determined to spoil the little boy’s fun.
String Theatre’s show is a beautifully expressive tale of loneliness, friendship and imagination that is enchanting to watch. Based on a 1956 film by Albert Lamorisse, The Red Balloon carefully retains its French art house style while adding about 10 minutes to its length, producing a very grown-up 45-minute show that moves seamlessly around the unnamed town and cleverly draws the audience into the story.
This is very sophisticated puppetry, and deceptively simple to watch as characters move between the two sections of the tiny stage. But puppeteers Elizabeth Barron, Stan Middleton and Soledad Zarate display considerable skill in creating such effective characters with deft movements that suggest happiness, anger, playfulness, excitement and sorrow. And there is a definite hint of melancholy that runs through the piece as the boy learns about friendship and loss.
The marionettes themselves, created by Stan Middleton and Soledad Zarate, have a pseudo-Victorian look with the children in short trousers and caps, while the red and blue balloons in the story are warm and transparent, clearly marking them as “friendly” creations. Josh Middleton’s music is more mixed and while the dramatic scenes are nicely punctuated, some of the repetitive keyboard pieces in the happy sections become a little pitchy and grating.
In what was a very mixed audience, the show is short enough to keep most of the children’s attention, drawn to the clever use of primary colours and clear storytelling. Lots of the visual humour, such as the old lady chasing the balloon away from her washing or the spinning acrobat, gets everyone laughing, and it trusts the intelligence of the viewer, whether they’re 4 or 54, to understand what’s going on.
But the deeper meanings and artistry of the show is clearly aimed at adults which means it would be equally at home in a school assembly as a theatre festival. The Red Balloon is a charming and elegantly performed show that displays a rare universality, and its themes of friendship and loss will having some meaning for anyone who watches it.
Runs until 19 March 2017 | Image: Contributed