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A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings

Based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez
A Little Angel Theatre Production in association with Kneehigh
Battersea Arts Centre

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings Credit: Little Angel Theatre
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings Credit: Little Angel Theatre
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings Credit: Little Angel Theatre

Based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is a collaboration made in heaven between Islington’s Little Angel and Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatres. Spun out a little bit, but sprinkled with stardust, and incredible value for money.

The joint company worked with scriptwriter Anna Maria Murphy to reimagine Gabriel García Márquez’s timeless parable (from his 1955 collection Leaf Storm) of greed and superstition set in his native Colombia as a fable for today.

Transporting it to an English rural seaside town… with a Catholic priest from South America… this is a fable, right… and anything goes—a beautiful storybook set, a steeply-raked village rises from the seashore, pink crabs climb over the seawall groynes. In one window a couple cradles a sick child, in the other an old lady complains of the damp. Once upon a time…

A very old man with enormous wings ‘the size of eight albatross’ wingspans crashed down in the yard of poor simple folk, the mother with her head in the clouds, the father with his feet on the ground, the parents of the sickly child. Instantaneously the boy gets better. ‘I’d call the priest if I were you.’

Is this smelly creature an angel or ‘a devil’s chicken’? (Is David Almond’s Skellig a reincarnation?) By touching his mangy feathers others are cured of their peculiar ailments.

One minute they want to club him, the next to crown him, bring him wine and bread. The boy’s wily mother imprisons the grey creature in their chicken coop and charges admission. Father Gonzaga, levitating every time he speaks, writes to His Highest Eminence to come and verify this miracle maker.

But the post boy in blue takes forever to return with his reply, cycling higher and higher, getting lost, resorting to a row boat, a hot air balloon, Odysseus never took so long. The town sings a ‘we wait’ song.

In the meantime the seaside village becomes rich and famous, and coach party grockles come from far and wide. Bunting, cream teas, bed and breakfast establishments proliferate, and the villagers acquire satellite dishes and a neon-lit bank with a greedy banker who swallows their investments—‘that’s what I call a credit crunch’—till he pops.

The little boy he cured takes pity on the winged man, tethered like an iconic crucified figure at the village crossroads, flowers at his feet and head. He frees him, and he flies away. What was he singing? Who or what was he?

A power for good, or bad? Or just a conduit for human folly? Boom and bust… Word comes of other freaks of nature elsewhere, the zone of interest shifts, and the priest goes off naked to do penance in the wilderness. Everyone wants a miracle. Here it is ‘so quiet I can hear the cockroaches whispering’, the old lady concludes.

Warm, silly, wise and topical, seventy-five captivating minutes fly by. Anna Maria Murphy’s script engages adults with its wit, whilst the clever staging and the appealing work of art puppets will fascinate all ages.

Puppeteers Avye Leventis, Rachel Leonard, Roger Lade and Sarah Wright in grey workmen suits, caps, and painted faces, take on multiple roles: individual characters and village groups, TV newsreader, tightrope walking chickens, realistic performing dog (made of leather), and crabs.

And it is interesting how much characterization matters, how believable and expressive puppets’ immobile features can be. Just one idiosyncratic characteristic will do the trick, the old lady (Avye Leventis) with her aphorisms and Father Gonzaga’s (Roger Lade) fluting voice most convincing and disarming.

A first collaboration between ‘the home of British puppetry’ and the renowned Kneehigh, the production values are exceptional, and the production team unusually large for a modest puppet show.

A family enterprise, The Little Angel Theatre punches above its weight. Founded in 1961, the creative crew on this production includes matriarch designer Lyndie Wright and offspring—puppetry director and puppeteer Sarah Wright, storyboarding by Joe Wright (yes, that one—director of Anna Karenina, Atonement, Pride and Prejudice, and soon to be directing at the Donmar and Young Vic).

A huge cast of remarkable puppets, directed by Mike Shepherd (Joint Artistic Director of Kneehigh) and lit by Malcolm Rippeth, has superb musical support and soundtrack from composers and multi-instrumentalists Ian Ross and Benji Bower.

Originally created in 2011 to celebrate fifty years of The Little Angel Theatre, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is for all ages from six up, and is touring the country from Battersea’s BAC to the Bristol Old Vic, Salisbury Playhouse, The Curve in Leicester, Falmouth Performance Centre and back to the Little Angel Theatre in March. Do go and be charmed.

Reviewer: Vera Liber