Puppetry's not what it used to be – and amen to that! The capital's luscious International Mime Festival is an annual chance for us to exclaim on just how far it's come. This year it's headlined by hit Edinburgh transfer: 'The Table', an 85-minute triptych of shorts by the capital's most progressive puppeteers, Blind Summit. It is eye-poppingly skilful – and bizarrely good fun.
Beckett meets Tommy Cooper in the most substantial of the three shorts, an existential stand-up routine delivered by a grumpy cockney cardboard-headed puppet, who threatens to perform the last 12 hours of Moses's life on a table but instead leads us and his three creator/operators on a series of very merry tangents.
Voiced by Mark Down (and legged and arsed by Nick Barnes and Sean Garrett), this austere and slightly lairy comic creation, operated visibly in the Japanese bunraku style, brings the most angular bonce to the London stage since Patrick Stewart did 'Godot', but offers a lot more flexible fun for your buck (tickets start at £10).
The existential angst revs up when a silent, violent woman (Sarah Calver) appears and tries to tip our table-dweller off the edge. It's a deft comment on the human situation – with the roles of puppet and creator nicely mingled and reversed. But, at its most engaging best, this is a mini-masterclass in puppetry: as our anti-hero climbs the invisible 'wall' and does the 'running-machine man' he also reveals the tricks of the trade.
After puppet man in crisis, there's a trippy dance of disembodied skulls and hands – then a witty lo-fi animated escape story of crime and true love, told in 'la mode Français' (ie by turtle-necked chain-smoking puppeteers) using only a highly organised stack of felt-tip illustrated A4 paper.
It's a witty, whimsical coda to a disjointed but hugely inventive showcase for British puppetry. And one that underlines the secret of its nu-folk success: at a time when life is mediated by digital screens, an 'acoustic' live cartoon or a handmade creation which shows you how it's manipulated is more than just retro, it's a refreshing January virtual-reality detox.
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