Little Angel Theatre
Anyone who knows me will tell you, I like a moan. If something is bothering me or I feel rubbish, the best way to clear the poison is to talk it out. And I am a critic, after all. Quite often I find that other people also appreciate the opportunity to acknowledge that everything’s not shiny in their world, because it’s not all kittens and lollipops, is it?
For children, often surrounded by sweetly upbeat messages and demands for ‘positive vibes only’, it’s sometimes difficult to find a space to speak honestly about how they’re feeling. It’s refreshing, therefore, to see Thirteen Months‘ The Grumble Cat tackling that issue of toxic positivity, letting children know it’s OK to not be OK.
There’s lots to like in this production, it undeniably has a great deal of potential. The script is quite solid, dealing with the topic in a structured way that’s easy for the younger ones to follow. There’s audience participation early on to get the kids onside. The music and songs are pleasant, if not entirely memorable, while the cast are likeable and can sing and act. But there is one fundamental flaw to this puppet show: the puppetry.
Firstly, the puppets themselves are quite basic, which could be OK if they were innovative or creative, but that’s not the case, and they actually detract from the story. It’s not just that they look patchy, they just don’t offer a great deal of possibility for motion or animation, which is how the puppet needs to speaks for the performer – in movement and body language. Clarity of visual communication is especially important for this kind of early years audience
Then there’s the puppetry itself. None of the puppet characters are allowed to lead their story, with the operators themselves simultaneously looking and acting out towards the audience. It’s disorientating for the spectator and makes it unclear if we’re to watch the puppet or the actor. This is easily fixed by instead channelling the operator’s focus into the puppet, projecting through it, rather than trying to do two performances at once.
One of the key fundamentals of puppetry is that the object becomes alive and remains ‘breathing’ throughout its performance. In this show the puppets are often allowed to flop as the puppeteer performs the lines, which disengages the character from both audience and story. It’s inconsistent and undermines what are otherwise enjoyable performances. Some of the best parts of the play are when there is just a human playing a character, fully focussed on the role and bursting with undiffused energy.
Moan over, I feel much better now. This is actually a nice show, sending out a very positive message. It has good lighting, practical staging, lovely music and a talented cast; but it’s not good puppetry, and that negates the basic storytelling. This is also simply fixed: if the actors lost the puppets and were in costume instead the skills they bring to the stage would have much greater effect. I’d be interested to see how this show would look in that format, as it really does have a lot to offer.
Produced by: 13 Months Theatre
The Grumble Cat plays at Little Angel Theatre until 27 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.