Review: Puppet regime in a political vacuum

TINKA'S NEW DRESS THE BARBICAN LONDON
SOOTY AS a secret subversive? Pinky and Perky as fifth columnists? No, politics and puppets (at least of the non-human kind) tend to have a separate existence in this country. By contrast, Ronnie Burkett - a Canadian performer who manipulates and speaks the dialogue for some 37 exquisitely fashioned marionettes in Tinka's New Dress - harks back to the tradition of underground, surreptitiously patriotic shows put on by Czech puppeteers during the Nazi occupation of their homeland.

Staged on a magical fairground carousel set, the piece loses some of the sting it might have had by swapping this precise historical context for a more generalised and slackly imagined one of Burkett's own devising. The audience is bombarded, on arrival at The Pit, with eerily recorded messages, relayed mantra-like by a brainwashing voice, from "The Common Good" - a totalitarian regime intent on eliminating all non-conformist elements in society. It's in the cabaret of a ghetto drag club that the idealistic young puppeteer, Carl, begins to ply his dangerously oppositional trade. This setting pushes the story to awkward extremes of bitchy, hardbitten camp and schmaltzy nobility. We are asked, for example, to believe that Morag, the resident screaming drag queen and specialist in "The Great Broads of the Old Testament" ("I hugely admired your portrayal of the burning bush") falls in love with Carl's sister, Tinka. Before he and the majority of good people are liquidated, Morag manages to sow the seeds of hope in her womb ("Tinka, it's so dark", "Yes, but things are growing...") to which the only response is "puh-leeeeze".

What makes the show intermittently hilarious are the inset puppet routines involving Franz, a priapic professor-like clown; his cute little bald, flappy-eared sidekick Schnitzel and a redoubtable diva, Madame Roderigue whose mountainous bosoms jerk up and down with the knowing smuttiness of Groucho Marx's eyebrows. These sequences demonstrate Burkett's quickness on the uptake with audience response and his ability to weave in topical material. Schnitzel has a tiny teddy called Tony Bear who, like his near- namesake, goes "Grrr Grrr" a lot in his desire to be thought a very important and frightening creature. And there are some good laughs at the supposed weirdo marginality of The Pit (Madame Roderigue would much rather be in a West End musical "with a battery pack in my ass and a mike in my hair") and through self-referential puppet jokes when the characters talk to us confidentially as if we were all marionettes together ("My earring just got stuck on my wire. I hate it when that happens, don't you?").

The "real" outer world of the play is, however, painted with such a broad brush that you can't estimate the skill or otherwise of Carl's political puppeteering, while you can't help but feel, in the circumstances, the grating difference between the difficulty of performing satire in a climate of totalitarian repression and the ease and impunity with which Burkett can take pot shots at Blair here. In terms of hard politics, it's not so much Tinka's Dress as a touch of the Emperor's New Clothes.

To 10 July, 0171-638 8891

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