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Review: FAMOUS PUPPET DEATH SCENES, Barbican Theatre

Review: FAMOUS PUPPET DEATH SCENES, Barbican Theatre

Slashed, smashed, squished, shot, stabbed and splatted.

Review: FAMOUS PUPPET DEATH SCENES, Barbican Theatre Slashed, smashed, squished, shot, stabbed and splatted: these are only some of the ways that Canadian company The Old Trout Puppet Workshop kill off their creations in the pitch-black Famous Puppet Death Scenes, making its London premiere at The Barbican as part of this year's London International Mime Festival.

This art form has always been fascinating to me. One of my favourite interviews was with the earthy puppet Moses and Avenue Q, The Life of Pi and the RSC's recent hit My Neighbour Totoro will always have a special place in my heart; something tells me that this show may work its way there too.

Puppetry has never been a stranger to violence but this show goes far beyond Punch & Judy's particular brand of domestic discord. Famous Puppet Death Scenes was devised in Alberta, Canada in 2006 but has only made an appearance in the UK twice before, both times at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Their tongue-in-cheek aim is clear: "only to show the most dramatic bits of the greatest masterworks of puppet theatre throughout history: namely, the part where the puppet dies" and comes with the ominous - though not totally inaccurate - warning that "only darkness awaits".

Within a zippy 65 minutes, Louisa Ashton, Aya Nakamura and Teele Uustani bring to life (and then savagely kill off) a bewildering array of creatures in a macabre murder spree of epic proportions. Each of the horrifying sequences is presented as a fictional work, the name of which rarely gives anything away. Das Bipsy und Mumu Puppenspiel by Freulicher Friedrich: Episode 43 "Bipsy's Mistake" sees a pair of German children's entertainers exploring the words "Ja" and "Nein", preferably without ending up being flayed alive by a fierce monster; they fail. The recurring Terry Gilliam-like The Feverish Heart by Nordo Frot shows an egg-shaped man mercilessly punched or smashed by an extended arm, despite his game but futile attempts to evade it.

Probably the darkest scene of this very dark production is The Swede Of Donnylargan by Sir Walter Pill. A woman walks into a room to see a pair of legs dangling from the ceiling and, grief-struck, shoots herself. Someone comes in to look for her, sees her dead body and the legs and then shoots themselves too; this kicks off a series of suicides until it is revealed that the original death was a tragic prank. The puppets are not all humanoid: we get to hear what a butterfly shrieks in horrifying detail as it emerges from its pupa and, later, Nakamura sprints across then off stage with an out-sized pair of scissors before returning clutching an outrageously long set of artificial entrails.

Famous Puppet Death Scenes leaves behind its slapstick brutality in its final scene. An incredibly sad vignette called The Last Heartbeat Of Nathanial Tweak, performed by Nathanial Tweak has a wizened bunraku man shuffle forward to gaze at the audience. Behind him, a dark figure ominously appears and a clock tocks loudly. Tweak slowly looks around to see this grim apparition, the tocking stops and the old man falls painfully to the ground. To the sound of bongs, Tweak is carefully carried off by Death. It's a theatrical mic-drop that brings home the power of storytelling and is a superbly crafted rejoinder to those who would see Famous Puppet Death Scenes as just another common-or-garden anthology of sex, gore, maiming and brutal killings.

Famous Puppet Death Scenes continues until January 28

Photo credit: AD Zyne

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