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Cell

Devised by William Aubrey Jones, Molly Freeman, Matthew Lloyd and Crly McConnell
Little Cauliflower Company with Smoking Apples Company
Pleasance Theatre, Islington
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This isn’t a play set in a prison—at least in the sense of a penitentiary.

It could take its name from body cell, a diseased one that increases in number or metaphorically because it is about a life that becomes increasingly restricted. It is about someone afflicted with MND, the currently incurable Motor Neurone Disease, which those who do not know it at first hand will know of because it is that from which Professor Stephen Hawking suffers.

This isn’t a tragedy and nor is it really about the disease. Puppet companies Little Cauliflower and Smoking Apples have combined to create a show that, though it does show the onset of MND and its diagnosis, is life affirming.

They have created a padded cloth puppet figure, Ted, with a bit of a paunch and wearing glasses, who is a keen philatelist. Puppeteer Matthew Lloyd carries him in and gently settles him into his wheelchair and Ted talks to us, like Hawking, with a slightly Americanised computer voice.

Going back in time, we see his symptoms beginning and go with him for x-rays and brain scans, sound provided by foley effects as well as by Emily Appleton Holley’s music and sound score.

When he goes to an auction after stamps, he finds his balance affected just as he is bidding but still comes away with the lot, surreally discovering it also comes with a goldfish.

Perhaps it is those stamps from exotic places that make him decide to go off on his travels, but Ted doesn’t just sit there and wait to get sicker. He’s off, taking his new fish companion with him, off on the train across Europe, his destination Venice and making a new friend on the way.

The journey is partly presented in shadow puppetry designed by Samuel Wyer like a Lotte Reiniger movie as well as in the main puppet action, the whole thing delightful.

Cell is extraordinarily simple and that makes it very beautiful. It is performed with feeling—yes, even love—by Lloyd, Molly Freeman and William Aubrey-Jones, and that makes it very moving.

Ted doesn’t believe in getting angry. Things will get worse but he looks at the positive, making the most of what he can still do and storing up memories to look back on later. As he puts it, “I’m not dying of MND, I am living with it! I've not led a grand life or a daring one, but I have had a bloody go.”

These Pleasance performances are part of a continuing tour.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton