A trip to the Puppet Theatre Barge is an event in itself: you should go, not just for the show, but for the whole experience. It’s difficult to think of any theatre outing where the walk to it can be as scenic as it is heading to Little Venice, the final stretch of the journey taking you along the canal footpath, watching ducks and swans passing by. And I’m fairly confident no other London theatre provides directions by boat on its website.
Once you arrive it’s all too easy to look at the outside of the Puppet Theatre Barge and question how on Earth we can all fit on there? But it’s a very deceptive sight. Once inside and past the box office the reaction is just like all those people who walk into Dr Who’s Tardis: yes, it’s much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. Now whilst the Tardis’ inner dimensions are due to some very complicated physics, the Puppet Theatre Barge is more to do with having dispensed with anything unnecessary, using every available inch to install banked seating and the stage. Yet it is still a magical sight to behold, even for the adults amongst us.
Talking of magical, The Water Babies is just that. Performed as part of London International Mime Festival, it is perhaps more for the adults than the children, as the story is not easy to follow and there is a reliance on the beauty of it all, rather than on the fun and japes that may appeal to a younger audience. The show is much like a silent movie, the musical accompaniment sounding so good in the space that you half expect to find there is a real piano being played backstage. The music is soft and soothing as we watch our young star puppet ripped from his childhood to work as a chimney sweep, before finding himself in the water, transformed into one of the water babies. But the story is very much secondary: it is the amazing visual delights that make this work such a treat. You really don’t come to Puppet Theatre Barge for detailed stories after all, you come to see the puppets.
The whole show from String Theatre is a joy to behold, and it’s amazing to watch the dexterity of the puppeteers controlling their small creations, giving them such personality with just a little tug on a string here and there. The audience heaves an actual sigh of despair as the boy is taken from his dog early on, the sullenness of the dog obvious to us all. Later, as the boy meets new companions in the water, there is genuine wonder as we watch four fish surround him and appear to smile their acceptance.
As well as the marionette puppets, String Theatre make marvellous use of shadow puppetry. So great, in fact, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking it’s a filmed segment of the show as it plays out above the main stage. We are gripped as the boy escapes the house and runs through the woods before falling into the water. This technique creates a quite different atmosphere to the marionettes, the black and white look giving a slightly sinister feel to developments.
Overall, The Water Babies is another delight from this unique theatre, showing that puppets aren’t just for children.
Based on the original novel by: Charles Kingsley
Adapted, directed and produced by: String Theatre
Booking Link: https://www.tickettailor.com/events/artofthepuppetltd/330609
Booking until: 23 February 2020