Pros: Such a delightful, enchanting tale. The music is as inspiring as the puppetry.
Cons: No major gripes. The custom-built stage is quite small, so the closer you sit the better.
The Red Balloon is an endearing and uplifting piece of puppetry, inspired by Albert Lamorisse’s Academy Award-winning short film of the same name. I’d never heard of it and yet it’s supposedly one of the most beloved children’s films of all time. Watching it the other night was about the nicest half hour of cultural consumption I’ve had in a long time. A boy befriends a balloon in post-war Paris, where not much seems to happen but everything that does is momentous. I can only urge everyone (who hasn’t) to see it.
String Theatre has done a great job with this theatrical adaptation. They’ve created a really immersive experience by combining long-stringed wood-carved marionettes, a built-for-purpose stage and an emotive and lucid soundscape. The stage, built by the Movingstage Marionette Company, is the first thing you notice upon entering the hall of The Space, a converted church on the Isle of Dogs, East London. Some of the children in the audience were trying to peak under the red curtain or around the sides of the box frame, curious to learn more about its workings.
The puppeteers are hidden, working from a bridge about five feet above the stage. They jump out at the end for their applause. And what a surprise to see that there were only two performers! I thought there was a busload of them up there, considering the array of puppets and the countless numbers of strings worked throughout. The puppets include an admonishing schoolmaster, a hardworking old washerwoman, an acrobatic chimney-sweep, some troublesome schoolboys, and a charming little bird that was so entertaining to watch. The choreography appeared effortless, with every action on stage reflected in the beat and chords of the music.
The curtain opens to a small boy walking on – all two feet of him – and rescuing a red balloon caught on the top of a lamppost. The balloon comes alive through clever animation and we follow the boy and his balloon through their escapades, as they play together in various urban locales. The set changes are impressive and visually pleasing, switching from a park scene, to a school grounds, from day to night and back, and from among the town houses to a vast cityscape.
The children in the audience seemed to respond to one very powerful moment, where a girl walks on stage holding a blue balloon. Having been so caught up with the boy and his pet balloon, it’s almost a mesmerising discovery for us to realise that this girl has her own magical world very much like the boy’s. Their sweet encounter somehow touches on the essence of what a true connection with another being is all about. Another powerful moment is the play’s climax of the boys’ attack on the balloon. Handled in a much less dark and ominous spirit than the film (although with the same shocking outcome), it still had me on the edge of my seat.
The 45-minute piece comes to a satisfying finish, having traversed some of life’s great themes, including friendship, loyalty and loss. I can’t praise the music enough. It builds beautifully and is in complete harmony with the story and the restorative quality that arises from reencountering a childhood innocence that is at once elusive and familiar to most of us in our adult lives.