Dramaturgy: Adam Peck
Director: Emma Williams
Reviewer: Jackson Lawrence
Directed by Emma Williams, Pickled Image in association with The North Wall, Oxford, delivers an intelligent work of quirk and abnormality with their recent hit, The Shop of Little Horrors. It is the story of an old man and owner of a puppet shop, Albert Grimlake, in his search for an apprentice to take over his trade. But there is something unsettling about his shop and Eric, an aspiring entertainer and puppeteer, is thrown into the sinister world of the so-called ‘Little Horrors’.
The design and technical aspects of this piece are flawless. The puppets are beautifully detailed (if not initially a little unnerving) and are brought to life with finesse and expertise. Both actors demonstrate their captivating ability with multiple types of puppets, bringing them to life with ease. The set, designed by Dik Downey, Bristol Old Vic scenic workshop, Lucy Rogers and Tim Lane, is meticulous and precise. Even down to the sawdust on the floor, the world of the play seems real and believable. The lighting and sound elements are absolutely integral parts of the story and are clean and clear.
Unfortunately, the writing seems to lose pace somewhere in the middle of the piece, with a lack of full character development and a series of successive hit-and-miss jokes. However, the lull is remarkably minor in an otherwise very well-written play. The characters are recognisable caricatures of people in everyday life which are comfortable and familiar. The comedy is not side-splitting, but arises from everyday situations turned absurd by the twisted creative minds behind the piece, making the play both disturbing and droll as well as being peppered with the macabre.
The company’s exquisite use of masks adds to the characterisations. The masks are brilliantly detailed and their exaggerated features are both humorous and reflective of their characters’ traits. Co-director of Pickled Image, Dik Downey (Albert) portrays a classic and recognisable character – an old craftsman with a love of his trade and a truly rubbish sense of humour – which, despite being an exaggeration of someone within modern day society is strangely believable and, at times, even relatable. The sound characterisation, in tandem with the quality of the masks, makes for an engaging play which intertwines comedy and truth. In fact, some may be surprised to discover how unlike his character Downey is when out of costume!
Adam Blake plays his rôle of Eric (and others) with enthusiasm and energy. Blake’s clowning background is obvious in the play through his reliance on exaggerated facial expression and slapstick comedy. Eric is the only character in the play not depicted with a mask, but Blake has no need of one. To cover his face while he plays the young and excitable Eric would be a crime as he uses it to express so many emotions with such clarity.
Even after the curtain has (metaphorically) fallen, the audience can take advantage of the company’s openness and willingness to chat to the public about the performance and the props, allowing them even further insight. Their trust in their audience is evidenced through their happiness to hand out puppets and masks for examination, exploration and discovery while answering any questions which may be directed to them with honest discussion and even demonstration. Obviously, they are very proud of what they have created – and so they should be.
Runs until 9th November 2013.