The Marked

Theatre Temoin/Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

Northern Stage

On 31 March 2017

Review by Peter Mortimer

No-one quite takes puppets seriously; from Muffin the Mule onwards they’ve been seen as rather loveable if silly playthings to be put aside with other childish pursuits. And all too often you could see the strings.

Though things might be changing, as reflected in the ambitious Moving Parts, the first Newcastle puppetry festival which has been taking place in the city over the last six days at four separate venues.

This is an ambitious programme of performances, workshops, talks, films and training put together by two young enthusiasts, Kerrin Tatman and William Steele. It’s attracted performers and makers from throughout the country on a budget of £17,000 (real costs about £30,000 according to the organisers) with grants from such places as Arts Council England and the NE charity Sunday for Sammy, which was set up in the memory of the well-known Tyneside actor Sammy Johnston.

There are events for children but, as if to emphasise their desire for puppetry to be seen as a grown-up art form, the programmers have concentrated on adults. Thus, you can catch a show Sex + Puppets or take part in workshops which might last a few hours, or in the case of the Puppet Making Residency, an entire six days. That one would cost you £360. Most shows and events have sold out.

There’s an eye-catching, 20-page, full-colour brochure which even includes a call for puppetry papers at the Puppetry Research Conference. Puppets meet academia.

Is this all activity inflating puppets (if you’ll excuse the phrase) beyond their natural state? Not really. Using puppets as theatre is a negation of the insidious celeb culture where many people will flock to a play merely to catch a glimpse of some PR-manufactured nonentity. As far as I know, not single puppet (if we discount Rod Hull’s Emu) has appeared on a chat show or opened their house to the cameras of Hello! magazine. They are what they are on stage.

I caught a sell-out performance of The Marked, a co-production between Theatre Temoin and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham in Northern Stage’s Stage Two. Concentrating on modern homelessness, this is a prime example of puppets being taken seriously. The show, a joint production between two theatres, is a culmination of research, community participation and workshops with funding and support from seven worthy institutions and a technical crew list as long as your, or anyone’s else’s, arm. Among the lengthy list of credits, there is no mention of a writer.

Played out against Zahra Mansouri’s down-at-heel urban set, this is the story of young Jack, homeless on the streets of London, and it looks to combine the ultra–realism of modern urban life for many displaced people with a sense of the fantastical as he evokes a series of strange creatures and monsters from his childhood to come to his aid. Filipe Gomes’s sound combines effectively with the lighting from Pablo Fernandez Baz to create some startling moments and Grafted Cede Theatre gives us some gruesomely effective masks. Dorie Pinchin, Tom Dawze and Bradley Thompson tackle a multitude of parts.

A risk of devised shows is the chance they may lack the vision of the single writer. Thus it is here, the piece seems always more aware of the social situation than the characters. And puppets don’t play a major role. Despite some visually arresting moments (costumes again from Zahra Mansouri), the pace is fairly slow.

You could see why this idea would attract good funding. But at times it felt not fully formed.

One last point. I’ve noticed the tendency at this theatre for person or persons with a vested interest to leap to their feet at the finale as if to provoke a standing ovation. It’s a dubious ploy but audiences will make up their own minds, as it was last night with the one would-be zealot left standing in isolation.