01 November 2010

Or You Could Kiss Me - National Theatre, Saturday 30th October 2010

In the winter of 2036, in a shabby apartment in Port Elizabeth, two old men search for a way to say goodbye after a lifetime spent together. In the perfect summer of 1971, in a very different South Africa, their handsome younger selves search for the courage to fall in love. And poised halfway between these two stories – one imagined, one remembered – their real-life counterparts bear witness to both the beginning and the ending of an incredible journey.
Cast: /puppeteers:
Adjon Andoh
Basil Jones
Finn Caldwell
Adrian Kohler
Craig Leo
Tommy Luther
Mervyn Miller
Marcus Tilt
Creative team:
Director : Neil Bartlett
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey
Music: Marcus Tilt
Puppet design: Adrian Kohler

Lets face it – most of the audience were there to see the puppets. OK, all of the audience were there to see the puppets. . Most of them had probably seen War Horse. OK, all of them had seen War Horse. I think most of them were disappointed. OK, all of ….. well, I know I was. And after about an hour, I was thinking “Frankly, I’ve had enough of this”. And so, judging by the enormous amount of fidgeting going on, I think everyone else had as well. And so Handspring Puppet Company cynically played their ace card – a puppet dog. I say cynically because, up to this point, the dog has only been heard and imagined, not seen. The audience immediately perked up, stopped concentrating on the play and zeroed in on the dog. I’ve said it before (stop me if you’ve heard this one) that you can put on a fantastic, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza and the audience will enjoy it. Put a live animal into it and the audience will go beserk. It appears to work with puppet shows as well. Put on an experimental and extremely gloomy play about a difficult subject but make the main human characters puppets. And then put a puppet dog on the stage and your audience will love you. And your play.

I think Handspring have seriously misjudged their audience here. Sure, they don’t want to get pigeonholed into doing cutesy plays about farmyard animals but this is what their audience are waiting for, so they should have gone with something like Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty or maybe Charlotte’s Web. I’d have gone been head of the ticket queue for all three – and cried buckets at the end of the last two. War Horse was such a roaring success because it gave the public something they couldn’t normally have seen on stage. But, apart from the puppet dog, you could have done Or You Could Kiss Me with a cast of humans and nobody would have batted an eyelid. In fact, I predict that if the author wrote out the puppets he could sell his script to every drama school in the land and have it performed by angst-ridden teenagers dressed entirely in black at the Edinburgh Festival on a more or less annual basis. It was all a bit too self-consciously clever-clever and experimental for my tastes – and certainly not what I wanted to see. I wanted a puppet horse winning the Derby for its blind owner whose parents were killed in a car crash when he was five (or so he thinks…..) and whose evil landlord is about to foreclose on the farm - “Gee, Blackie. I sure am gonna miss this place. Look at that sunset. Shame about not being able to see the ducklings hatch next week. Unless, of course, you overcome all the odds, a major personal romantic crisis and that gammy leg – which you injured rescuing me from the abandoned well on the old Tucker place - and win the Derby tomorrow in front of Sally who can’t afford to leave her job at the restaurant and marry me” (cue music from Chariots of Fire and cut to Sally in the crowd at the racecourse selling her last pillowcase and putting the money on Blackie to win at 300:1 just before the starting gun). Now THAT’S a puppet show. Not the problems of two old South African men coping with the hospitalisation of one of them while remembering the golden summer when they were teenagers and first met on the beach while the rain pours down and the cleaner fields telephone calls from angry solicitors.

Having the teenagers and old men represented by puppets and their middle-aged selves by live actors was a decent idea, but not when both actors were bland and essentially unsympathetically portrayed. And having everyone dressed in black and constantly delivering their dialogue into handheld microphones while reacting to messages crackling out of an old answering machine was just so Sixth Form DramaSoc that I lost both my patience and all feeling in my right buttock. Never have an hour and 35 minutes passed so slowly (and with no interval – what is it with directors that nothing has an interval these days?) It all felt so god-dammed worthy and right on and it irritated the hell out of me when I wanted an essentially daft but heart-warming story with a friggin’ puppet horse in it. Give me what I want and I will love you for it and sing your praises in my review. Or, of course, You Could Kiss Me and I’ll leave the theatre unfulfilled and grumpy.

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