Manipulate Part I: Beguiled – Traverse Theatre

Last Friday night, I was delighted to attend three consecutive shows at the Manipulate puppetry festival, hosted at the Traverse Theatre.

It began with Beguiled by Invisible Thread, a two-part tabletop piece showcasing their skilled, experimental stage craft and gorgeous miniature puppets. They open with Catmother, a gently amusing yet sinister Victorian tale of naughty children, secrets and threats. The show is performed by its creator Liz Walker and charmingly, by a member of the audience who follows instructions given by a voiceover. Our audience-member-puppeteer took to her new role with impressive enthusiasm.

It is a story of two mischievous children who are instructed by a mysterious person they meet under a bridge to behave badly, in order to know the secret of a magical box. In spite of their mother’s warnings of a terrifying Cat Mother who visits naughty children, the pair become increasingly disruptive until their mother is driven away. They smash plates, break beds, tear down a family portrait, and drown the family cat. Their exploits are presented in shadows which dance on the walls of the house in an increasingly unsettling way.

The piece is accompanied by a suitably creepy cello score played by Bob Lockwood as well as a recorded, lyrical script beautifully narrated by a child’s voice (Nate Toon) which fitted perfectly with the scale and tone of the piece. The puppets were characterful and exquisitely made and the stage craft highly innovative. For example, as the children venture into the village, trees, a bridge and a signpost bob past on a mechanism made with a bicycle chain.

Despite the charm of the audio and visuals, the piece lacked pace and ended too abruptly. Once sufficiently naughty, the children discover that there is nothing inside the secret box, and that they had caused havoc in vain. The concluding sequence is the arrival of the infamous and seemly enormous, red-eyed Cat Mother as the children flee.

The second part of the show, Les Hommes Vides, is more abstract. It is a series of mini tales and slapstick comic sketches in which Walker, now accompanied by Lockwood, really showcase their puppetry talent. In this, we meet many new and amusing characters who dance, fight, share existential musings, and conduct a bingo game in which audience members won puppet making kits. This second part was more spontaneous and experimental, at times incoherent but entertaining nonetheless. A fitting juxtaposition to the previous piece.

Beguiled exemplified gorgeous craftsmanship and expert puppetry, and though it lacked in pace, its narrative was made up with style and charm, and was treat to watch.


PHOTO: Traverse Theatre

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Laura Hounsell

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