The Devil and Mister Punch
Devised by Julian Crouch, Rob Thirtle, Nick Haverson, John Foti, Saskia Lane, Jessica Scott and Seamus Maynard, text by Nick Haverson, Julian Crouch and Rob Thirtle
The Pit, Barbican
To mark the anniversary of Mr Punch's birthday—it is 350 years since sighting of the puppet was first recorded here in the diary of a certain Samuel Pepys—the ever-creative Julian Crouch has taken a look at the traditional of story of Punch and Judy, through a distorting lens.
No room here for the squeaky clean version proffered to candyfloss-covered children at the seaside. This Mr Punch is closer to the original: in temper he throws his child out of a window, bludgeons his wife to death and then goes on to murder his doctor. Eventually captured by the law, he is sentenced to hang but the devious cur tricks the hangman who dies on the gallows prepared for Punch, though this doesn't stop Mephistopheles from claiming the loathsome Mr P as his.
What might be termed the essential Punch story is not told with a linear narrative but as was presented originally as a series of events, albeit punctuated here with references to different times and styles that reflect his survival in popular culture over centuries. The episodes include many in the Punch tradition such as the crocodile scene, and some play out with an unexpectedly weird or nasty twist, none more so than a troupe of acrobatic piglets minced by a singing, naked butcher and his wife, thus pointing to the sausages scene. Amazing what puppets can get away with…
From this surreal organised mayhem emerges something of the relationship between the entertainers themselves though, poignantly, fewer words pass between them than between their characters. Like jongleurs of old they have struggled and travelled long to ply their trade and now Messrs Harvey and Hovey have fallen from popularity and are left depleted. Mr Punch may have been able to cheat the devil but those that give him life are caught in a kind of Vaudevillian purgatory where story meets reality.
Julian Crouch is at the heart of this collaborative effort. He designed the set with Rob Thirtle and Mike Kerns, the puppets with Jessica Scott and the costumes with Sarah Laux; the music and lyrics are credited to John Foti, Saskia Lane, Crouch and the company, and Crouch directs the highly talented and multi–skilled cast that includes the same Thirtle, Scott, Foti and Lane, together with Nick Haverson and Seamus Maynard. Their output is a push–me–pull–you experience. It has its endearing moments like Mr Hovey's ineptitude or Mr Harvey's pathetic attempts to get the attention of the pretty girl, but just as these warm you up and draw you in, its Grand Guignol and grossness fend you off.
Unsettling as it is, and although a touch too long, it is nevertheless provocative and wonderfully entertaining with abounding spoken and visual wit, even down to the brilliantly clever set, an assembly of openings as carefully created as a honeycomb out of which can come anything.
The Devil and Mister Punch is now sold out.
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti