Posts Tagged ‘Handspring Puppet Company’

Review – War Horse – National Theater at the New London Theatre

October 25, 2012

Am I the last person in London to see War Horse? Given that it opened in 2007, it seems like the answer is “yes,” but it can’t possibly be true, or it wouldn’t be booking at the New London Theater through October 2013, and people wouldn’t keep coming to my site looking for cheap deals to see it. I’ve been wanting to see it for all of this time, and I’ve carefully kept myself away from spoilers in anticipation of seeing it. I mean, horses! Puppets! Horse puppets! It seemed like the kind of play I could really, really enjoy … but not the kind I could see on a budget. (I’ve only seen offers twice and the show constantly is sold out, so my advice is, if you want to see it for cheap, shop far in advance for the restricted view seats, such as circle A14 and A15, only £10.)

So, we’re looking at a show that, if I was going to see, I was going to need to fork over some serious dough for, since it’s supposed to be spectacular and so I actually wanted to NOT have a restricted view. And here you are, at Life in the Cheap Seats, and I’m telling you there aren’t any deals to be found, and what you’ve got to want to know is, is it worth it? (For the record, my tickets were £65, and they were a birthday present, so they WERE cheap … for me! But I waited all of this time to go because I couldn’t afford anything the year it came out, and I couldn’t convince myself to pay full price, and it never came up at TKTS, and even Graham Roberts of Great Tickets was only ever able to save about £2 a ticket. So I asked for it as a birthday present, and I received.)

Rather disappointingly, I need to report that five years after it opened, War Horse continues to have a strong emotional impact and shows no signs of flagging commitment from the cast. We know it’s about a boy and his horse and World War I, right, so no spoilers there … but I wasn’t expecting such a lyrical look at life in rural Devon before the war, or that so much attention would be spent on making Albert’s family and their struggles on their farm so vibrant. And I had thought it was told through the eyes of the horse … but it’s not. The main horse, Joey, is followed throughout the story, but we simply follow his experiences, which almost always have a human focus and never turn into silly anthropomorphism. There is no horsey thoughts spoken through a narrator (I was SO worried about this), and Joey stays a horse, responding in a horsey way … there is never a moment which I thought to be unsuited to the natural behavior of a (well-loved and trusting) horse. Would he react to gunfire and the realities of battle the way he did? Well, that I can’t say, but what I saw made it all seem quite natural.

A lot has been made of the puppets and, well, if you read me a lot, you’ll note that I write about puppets more than most theater bloggers. The War Horse full sized horse puppets did have a stunning range of movement – I’ll never buy their running motion (and walking wasn’t particularly great), but kicking and most normal horse stuff (like pulling a cart) was quite good, and by the time we got to the climactic first act “bet” scene, I’d become pretty vested in Joey, no longer reading him as a pile of sticks being manipulated by three puppeteers but as a horse (as represented on stage, much like “Albert” was a grown man playing a boy). And the fight scene with him and another horse was really done just extremely well. I was also pleased to see there were many other puppets in the show, from the birds that built atmosphere in the opening scene, to the comic goose, to the tragic one-man horse/human puppets that represented the cavalry and quite dramatically showed that the age of man and horse in war had come to an end just as Joey had been called up to a “higher” duty than pampered farmhorse.

WELL! So where does that leave you? I cried occasionally and without shame during this show, and wept hard enough at the end that I had to wipe my tears on my sleeve. All that and I’d just spent nearly three hours (time flew by, I hadn’t even noticed how long it had been) watching a bunch of sticks making friends with a guy earning a paycheck on stage. Total suspension of disbelief, people, and I loved every minute of it, even the songs, even the German cavalryman. I could tell, though, that there were some _might_ bad seats at the New London, but still, if good story telling and compelling theater is what your looking for, Warhorse really delivers. It may be the last present I ever get from my husband (more sniffling and sadness), but it was a wonderful gift.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 12th, 2012. The show never seems to end. Buy ahead if you want to buy cheap.)

Review – Crow – Handspring at Greenwich Dance Borough Hall

June 21, 2012

A world famous puppetry company, singlehandedly responsible for the National Theatre’s currently positive balance sheet. The poetry of one of Britain’s most famous 20th century writers. Put them together, and you’d get something magical, like Cats.

Or maybe not.

Two days after seeing Handspring Puppet’s Crow, I amazed that no one saw fit to stop this train wreck. There are some puppets, if this is what you came for. I recall a moment of naturalistic beauty as one first lifted its shiny black head to look upon the world. And there is some interesting poetry that, early on, gave hope that the evening might soar.

However, it’s the eye-burningly bad modern dance that drags the show down. The movement is not so much uninteresting as actively ugly, only tangentially related to the spoken word (which is actually in short supply). Watching the actors shuffling around on the floor, disassembling puppets, smearing grease on each other, feigning amorous interest, and generally giving their best, I feel sure their sincerity meant they had yet to figure out they were involved in a monsterpiece.

The crow puppets actually made it all worse. Was the emotional climax of the play really the moment when the pale penis of a man-sized crow creature becme erect? It’s an image that is burned in my mind, to be sure, in part because it marked the point of when I realized the evening was lost. As the crow chased a long haired actress lustily around the stage, finally disappearing into a cavern with her, I wondered if it could get any worse. Then the dome at the center of the stage cracked, and a giant crow beak poked out. The night tipped into pure absurdity for me, as I relived the key moment of an amateur production of HP Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House,” in which all of the evil of a small town is made clear by the grand reveal of an ELBOW of some giant monster, rather unconvincingly rendered in carved foam. (Read the full text here and imagine the moment.) Crow had crossed into parody, and I let myself giggle away the rest of the evening.

It’s amazing how a really bad show can make one hour and ten minutes seem like an eternity, but I knew it had to end soon enough; many of the other audience members were unable to wait even that long, however. We walked out in silence. Will it be revived? I think: nevermore.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, June 19th, 2012. Crow continues through July 7th. If it helps, imagine this show at the performance given my the gang of bankrobbers to the old ladies’ art society in The Ladykillers. It kind of works!)

Review – Or You Could Kiss Me – Handspring at the National Theatre

September 29, 2010

I admit: I booked Or You Could Kiss Me in ignorance and in girlish fannishness. Fannishness, I say, because I bought it strictly because it came with the Handspring Puppet Company Tag, they of War Horse fame; ignorance because I’ve never actually seen War Horse (too pricey) and, by the time I went, I’d almost completely forgotten what the show was about. It was new, it had puppets, I’d found tickets for £10 (slightly restricted view); done.

So what is this new play with puppets about? It’s about a couple, two gay men at the end of their lives, who are fairly close to death and not handling it very well. That is, one of the men (Mr. B, no relation to the choreographer) is very close to death; yet really, neither he nor his partner (Mr. A, “the little one”) seem to be able to organize either the details of their lives or their relationship with each other in a way that is going to lead to maximizing happiness for both of them. Mr. B really seems to need to sort his memories; both of his life (as his ability to do so degenerates) and of the particulars of his time with Mr A.

As we watch the elderly puppets shuffling and napping, we’re treated to the glittering details of the start of “them,” as glorious puppet-youths, swimming, playing squash, dancing, and dealing with insecurity – of being gay in a less-friendly time, and of wanting to be loved. Somewhere in there is something Mr B really needs to remember correctly; and, it seems, there is something he needs to say to Mr A.

This lovely little play, with its beautifully crafted and manipulated puppets, seems to struggle far more with the tedium of daily life than even Mr B. There are meals, there are phone calls, there is a dog that barks too loudly and pees on the floor, there is just too much that needs to be pared away for this 110 minute, interval-less show to get down to the core I think must be in there underneath it all. Playwright Neil Bartlett and Handspring convinced me that something important needed to be done and said; but I left this play feeling unsatisfied. No matter how well carved and researched Misters A and B were, the play must get back to their story. With luck, the end of previews will trim a bit more away; and a remount, short a good half hour (that I think no one will dare remove lest National audiences complain about not getting their money’s worth), and we may have a very good play at hand, rather than one that is fine but simply too long.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, September 28, 2010. This play officially opens October 5th. It runs through October 30th as near as I can tell but it may extend.)