Image: Kathleen Iron – Photography: Al Caeiro
It seems the Dead Puppet’s Society’s success was written in the stars. In just a few years they’ve leap-frogged from independent stages to their first main house production. During that time they’ve managed to build an unmistakable aesthetic and style, and (I would guess) a sustainable audience as well. Their latest outing, a revised mainhouse production of The Harbinger for La Boite Theatre Company, is almost a guaranteed success.
The Harbinger was part of La Boite Indie last year. I attended that show as well, and while I appreciated the mastery of the puppets, the show had a lot of problems. I was pleased to discover this version of the show is very different. It has similar genetics, but it’s almost an entirely new play.
It’s a beautifully choreographed ensemble, with frequent staging surprises. A rich and lush design makes this production a delight to watch.
Chased by an anonymous and dark figure, a young girl (Kathleen Iron) takes shelter in an old book shop. It’s owned by local curmudgeon Old Albert. The girl is amazed at Old Albert’s books (objects that are no longer found in this decaying world), and pesters him for stories. Slowly, Old Albert’s past unwinds itself, and we discover the romance at the heart of his bitterness. As with the company’s past works, it’s a a dark and predictable fairytale. But the real joy of these shows is, of course, in the puppets.
Old Albert is a gigantic puppet, handled by four actresses, led by Barbara Lowing. Old Albert spends the majority of the play sitting in his wheelchair. He is the absolute star of the show. While he’s no doubt a spectacle, I found him extremely difficult to connect to. His head (from what I could see) was only moveable at the neck, jaw and eyelids. Old Albert is called upon to express many nuanced emotional states, and his size and mechanics seem to restrict him from doing so. I found myself looking to Barbara Lowing, placed just behind the head and providing Old Albert’s voice. I’ve worked with Barbara extensively before, and found her performance to be predictably astute and generous.
Old Albert is the pinnacle of an absolutely sumptuous and gorgeous design. Led by David Morton and assisted by Noni Harrison (costume design), this is a beautifully defined world. This play is consistently wonderful to look at, supported by rich lighting and sound. (Provided by Whitney Eglington and Tone Black Productions) Co-directed and co-written by David Morton and Matthew Ryan, the staging is frequently ingenious and surprising, and is completely integrated into the design.
The five local actresses (yay!) are a tightly synchronized ensemble that deliver fantastic performances. Kathleen Iron is comedic and cute as the young girl, and plays off Lowing well. The remaining three cast members (Niki-J Price, Anna Straker and Giema Contini) are given full voice in Old Albert’s memories, where smaller and equally spectacular puppets come out to play. Price and Straker are particularly accomplished as the young, doomed lovers.
There are some core problems at the heart of The Harbinger. The piece lacks enough forward momentum to keep an audience fully compelled. The tension of the piece is reliant on the anonymous and dark dystopia outside, personalised by a cloaked figure. This is terrifying at first, but the stakes are never raised, and as the play goes on it is barely mentioned. So we come to rely on the young girl’s curiosity to keep us interested. Her suspicions are occasionally dark, but these threats are never realised, and so lengthy interactions between her and the enormous puppet seem to repeat themselves and lack direction. It’s a shame, because a thrilling narrative is all that’s stopping this show from being a truly wonderful night out.
Nevertheless, you should go see it. It’s a beautifully choreographed ensemble, with frequent staging surprises. A rich and lush design makes this production a delight to watch. It’s another exciting development in the growth of the unmistakably recognisable Dead Puppet Society.
The Harbinger plays at The Roundhouse. For session times and dates, check La Boite Theatre’s website.