Beverley Puppet Festival and Upfront Puppet Theatre’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

We optimistically purchased tickets to see Drew Colby’s “My Shadow & Me” (Shadowgraphy) some time prior to the Beverley Puppet festival and checked whether we would be ok to bring a 1 year old child with us.  We thought that with a showing of 2pm we stood a good chance of being able to get Anthony ready and travel over 100 miles east across Yorkshire in time.

Then we found out that there would be a Puppeteers UK meeting there as well at 10am and I thought to myself if we do REALLY well we might even get there for the meeting too!

We did NOT get there for the meeting too.  We didn’t even get there for 2pm.  We only managed to leave the house by around 10.30am and of course we had to stop for lunch and in the end only just got to the festival in time to see anything at all!

We caught most of the “Tiniest Cellist” act by Ettenoiram (of Hungary).  Clive Chandler’s Punch & Judy was nearly over when arrived so we just had a little chat with him after his show.  We also saw Lady Lucinda Harrington-Carrington by Noisy Oyster (of Frome) heading by (whom we had encountered at Beverley when we performed there previously) and also saw Professor Ambrose Merryweather & His Fabulous Fossils by
Vivify (of Scarborough) in the distance.

We had been thinking disappointingly that in order to be back in reasonable time to put Anthony to bed we would have to set off home again but when Mark Whitaker appeared for a 4pm performance of A Bird in the Hand Theatre’s “Special Delivery”, we thought we couldn’t really pass up an opportunity to actually see a full show.

Ironically, the main two acts I had caught at Skipton Puppet Festival the previous year (when Anthony was a very tiny fellow all wrapped up in his pram from the rain) had been Mark Whitaker’s “Special Delivery” and Clive’s Punch & Judy.  We had unfortunately not been able to watch all of Clive’s show as at that age he had found it too loud and started crying.  Anthony was able to watch and appreciate properly Mark’s show this time and my husband and Rough Magic Theatre co-performer had not seen it before, either.

It is a lovely little street theatre show – very adaptable (somewhat like my shadow puppet suitcase shows) in that the whole staging is mounted on a bicycle which is wheeled into the space by Mark and then remains there, freestanding, (using the kick-stand).  This leaves Mark free to perform around it and use more of the space (coming close up to the audience for various bits of action etc.

The show includes a whole range of different types of puppetry and story-telling techniques including a “crankie” and Kamishibai style “storyboards” and various small “table-top” type puppets.  These show the interior of various people’s houses who are receiving parcels, which are themselves in little puppet theatre boxes designed to look like paper packages on the bicycle.  This is in addition to some lovely wordless slapstick character work by Mark, (in the character of hapless postman) involving sandwiches and self-raining umbrellas (a joke that worked much better in Beverley in the sunshine than in Skipton, where mother nature was already providing plenty of rain!).  Altogether a very charming and magical show (the finale with the hot air balloon is particularly lovely).  It is, however, definitely a show for an intimately sized audience as the puppets are very small scale.

 

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As I explained in my previous post, John & Elaine Parkinson of Upfront Puppet Theatre were kind enough to invite us to see their new improved version of their production of the Pied Piper of Hamelin based on the Michael Morpurgo version of the story.

We were not sure how well Anthony would cope with an indoor marionette show of this length but he seemed to stay pretty happy for a good long stretch before needing a bit of a break for a drink.  When we tried him again after the interval he once again seemed to get frustrated that he could not get close and play with the puppets, (making distressed noises when characters disappeared from view).  This unfortunately meant Tim did not get to see all of the show as he took Anthony out when he was getting too noisy.

The Michael Morpurgo version of the story has (as you would probably expect) a bit of a moral and political agenda compared to the traditional tale.  The town of Hamelin has a sharp divide between rich and poor – with the poor street children at the bottom of the heap and kept outside the town walls scavenging on the rubbish tip.  Because of their unwillingness to share with or even encounter the street children (who are forced to steal to survive) the townspeople begin to foul the streets with rubbish to avoid having to take it to the tip.

The rats migrate from the rubbish tip into the town (and so do the children in their search for something to eat).

The Mayor of the town is the villain of the piece being greedy and not using the people’s taxes to benefit the townspeople (by dealing with the rubbish properly for example).  He of course refuses to pay the Piper properly and in this version of the story the Piper promises to return the children of the town when the town is made a fit and proper place for all the children with food and housing and education etc. catered for.

I particularly liked the Mayor puppet who has a good strong caricatured shape to his body and clothes.  I thought the movements of the puppet fitted his character and the meaning of the words and action he was expressing in various different scenes very well.

There were also various very ingenious and quite effective techniques for moving large amounts of puppet rats about the stage.  UV lighting was used to good effect to light up the eyes of the rats and give them the sinister and evil appearance required by the story.  The most impressive effect involved a large number of rats moving across the stage on a gauze curtain and then somehow diving off the curtain rail into the “river”.  Though there were also some cartwheeling rats diving into the river that were very effective too.  I think the fact that a variety of different techniques were used to control the rats made it a lot more interesting dramatically.  I think some of the rats being pulled on strings across the stage snagged at one point, but as there were other rats still being moved with various other techniques it did not detract from the action and I doubt if the majority of the audience realised anything had gone wrong.

There was a very nice effect for the magical opening of the cave which I won’t describe so as not to spoil the surprise and the turntable stage and various other set changes were slick and effective.

To meet the the technical challenge of the large number of children heading in and out of the cave large numbers of children were grouped on 4 multiple controllers that in turn were slid across the stage on an overhead rail/pulley system.

The music was particularly good, (I hear via John’s article in the BPMTG newsletter that it was composed by a folk duo and roped in children from the local school for chorus songs).  It really helped to set the scene and keep the story moving along during set changes as well as providing necessary sound effects for the action.

I think it is a very ambitious production for the number of puppeteers (4) and uses a lot of complicated mechanisms to portray the action, (but I guess that is probably the nature of marionette productions and I cannot claim to have seen a great many traditional marionette shows).  In my experience, the more complicated the mechanisms in a production the greater the chance of something going wrong and as we were fairly early in the run I think things were not quite as slick as they doubtless will be towards the middle and end of the run.

Overall the show was very entertaining and told the story well and the puppets and sets are all beautifully made.

It was very interesting to hear from John at the end in the Q&A time about the lengths they had gone to to ensure that the production was a good match for the original book.  For example, specially printing up fabric patterns for the puppet costumes directly from the illustrations and having the puppets inspected by the illustrator to ensure they were a good match.  I think John did a good job translating the 2D images into 3D puppet heads, which cannot have been easy.

It was also wonderful for the children (and indeed the adults) to be allowed to come up close at the end and take photos and ask the puppeteers questions about the puppets.  This is also a great idea because it discourages people from taking surreptitious photos during the show and distracting the performers and other audience members.

 

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Thunderbirds are GO!!! – But are they as good as the original series?

Despite my initial suspicion, given the lack of puppets, the new reboot of Thunderbirds for ITV (Thunderbirds Are Go) has a lot of merit and is great fun to watch.

I tend to find in general that films and television that use CGI rather than puppetry are just not as effective.  You can always tell when something is CGI rather than animated or using live puppetry and it does tend to feel a bit cheap, fake and disappointing.  There are obviously exceptions.  The work of Pixar for example does not attempt to make CGI look naturalistic but instead uses caricatured visuals which are much more effective.

Puppets have a character and expression all of their own and unlike CGI where every action is programmed a puppeteer can be surprised by the things their puppet does.  A puppeteer does not impose a set of actions and movements upon the puppet, rather the puppeteer uses the natural movement and rhythm of the puppet as a physical object in real space, (with real gravity etc.) to create the character and these determine what movements the puppeteer has the puppet make.

A lot of directors/producers recognise the unique quality that physical models, practical effects, puppets, prosthetics and animatronics can give to a film and use these techniques in their work (often in combination with CGI as well).

Indeed the “Thunderbirds Are Go” series has tried to be very respectful to the love that people have for the original Thunderbirds and the old and new Thunderbirds share a great many common elements.  Not least of these is the decision to use model work and some physical effects in combination with the CGI characters.  These models have been made by Weta Workshops in New Zealand – the same team who created the truly stunning model work for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, (the films which coincidentally brought the use of CGI in film forward in huge leaps and bounds).

I watched a “making of” documentary of the “Thunderbirds Are Go” series and was delighted to hear that Weta had been taking inspiration from the original Thunderbirds sets by incorporating everyday household objects (such as a lemon squeezer and part of a Dyson vacuum cleaner) into the sets and models.  I am a big fan of re-purposing everyday household objects and waste to create new and fabulous things.

I was also amazed to discover that they were able to engage the same voice actor from the original Thunderbirds to play the ever popular “Parker” (Lady Penelope’s chauffeur).

The things we all loved about the original Thunderbirds – exciting plots, great music, suspense, explosions, ingenious machines, humour and the elaborate and fantastic ways the Tracy brothers get into their uniforms and vehicles are all still there in the new series.  Some of the plots are better than others but in the main – highly entertaining.

So what are the differences?  Gerry Anderson tried very hard to keep the “puppetness” of the characters to a minimum.  They wanted the strings to be as little noticed as possible and, to avoid the funny, unnatural walk the characters had being on view, the plots had the characters sitting down a lot or used close ups of the faces or top halves of the characters.  The puppets had sophisticated mouth moving mechanisms and features that were very realistic.  Captain Scarlet continued this quest for realism and away from caricature by reducing the size of the heads of the puppets to be closer to the proportions of a real human being.

I am not by any means criticising the puppeteering skills of the Thunderbirds team as the problems with the puppets’ gait were not necessarily their fault.  The use of long strings kept the puppeteers out of view but also diminished control compared to a short stringed marionette.  To minimise the visibility of the strings, a lesser number than is usual were used which made natural movement difficult too.  I understand there were also difficulties with weighting the puppets correctly to produce a natural walk due to the materials used.  For those who are interested – you can find out more about this in John M Blundall’s article page 19 of volume 16, Number 7 Autumn 2009 issue of The Puppet Master (The Journal of the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild).

Despite these difficulties audiences found the puppet performances charming, fascinating and no bar at all to whole-hearted immersion in the stories that the puppets were telling.  I believe young children who watch marionette shows (even live where the strings are more visible) do not even notice the strings, as the life of the puppet and the story are all absorbing.  I heard a great many people, including Paul O’ Grady on his Radio 2 show, bemoaning the lack of puppets in the new series and saying “it’s not the same without the puppet is it?”.

While the puppets managed to tell their stories perfectly well, the CGI characters (despite lacking the charm of the puppets) are able to do things (or be seen doing things) which the puppets could not.  The sequences with Parker as the “Grey Ninja” in one of the episodes of Thunderbirds Are Go, have him leaping and sneaking about in a way the puppet Parker never could.  These movements may not have been awfully realistic for a man his age but that made it funny!

Lady Penelope’s radically altered appearance is something I find difficult to forgive and of all the CGI characters her appearance looks the most fake.  Her hair (and indeed the hair of all the characters looks solid like it has been carved out of something) and her face has none of the effortless cool and sophistication of the original Lady P. (who I’m told was modelled on the appearance of Sylvia Anderson).  The addition of a pug to her entourage is however, perfectly acceptable and it is very cute.  The new look of the pink Rolls Royce is also acceptable and pretty damn snazzy.

The look of the faces of the Tracy Brothers and the other characters is meant to be a nod to the original “eggshell” finish of the puppet faces but I can’t help wondering if this just makes the CGI look cheap and shoddy, as it looks like a mistake.  The solid-look hair would also make the characters quicker and easier to animate.  On the other hand – I do like the fact that the characters (apart from Lady P.) are very similar and recognisable from the original puppets and I have already admitted that I prefer my CGI stylised rather than realistic.

The greatly increased role of Grandma Tracy in the new series is a good change too as she adds a lot of extra humour and of course it is always good to address the male/female balance a bit.

The new series has also tackled some of the less PC slightly cringe-worthy elements of the original series (though it was of its time so some slack can be cut, I feel).  I refer to the fact that in the original series the Hood (the bad guy) has an east asian appearance and the Tracy family servants are also East Asian (so either sub-ordinate or evil hmmm!).

In the new series the Hood does not look or sound Asian (he sounds English) and Brains, who is a positive character possessing great intelligence and a member of the International Rescue team, has become an Asian character and is voiced by a British Asian actor.  It makes sense to me that “International Rescue” has taken this opportunity to become a bit more International than they were before (they only had Americans and English people originally).

I am, however, greatly disappointed that the Hood has not the same level of cheesy villain-ness as before, (I would like to see more maniacal laughing and I miss his glowing mesmeric eyes trick).

Despite the shortened running time (another new series drawback) the character interactions are given more prominence and subtlety and in many episodes are more important than the rescue scenarios.

So which is best?  I am going to sit on the fence and say I like them both.  There is nothing to stop Thunderbirds fans old & new from enjoying the original series in all its Supermarionated glory and then tuning in to find out what the latest emergency facing International Rescue is on ITV at the weekend.

At Stone Puppet Festival on the 8th and 9th of August 2015 there will be a free interactive exhibition of “classic” Thunderbirds Marionettes by Supermarionation Recreations.  A great chance to discover the puppets the new series is based on for young viewers and a nostalgic stroll down memory lane for those of us who remember and love the original Thunderbirds series.  CLICK HERE to find out more and don’t forget Stone Festival’s Crowd Funding campaign still needs your support.  Tell all your friends and pledge some money if you can please 🙂  We will be performing our Alice in Wonderland show at the festival, CLICK HERE for more info.

Meanwhile please vote in my poll below 🙂