Puppetry is rarely used in British theatre except to represent the near impossible to stage. But the team behind War Horse’s wonderful equine puppets are collaborators and onstage puppeteers in Neil Bartlett’s new play, a South Africa-based love story between two men that spans 66 years.
It is no coincidence that Handspring Puppet Company’s Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones share the same first initials as the play’s marionette pair, Mr A and Mr B. A note on the text explains that the real-life couple came to Bartlett with the idea for the semi-biopic puppet show about their lives, taking the story into a fictional future.
Two sets of puppets represent Mr A and Mr B: one as gnarled, fleshless octogenarians in 2036; the other as proud specimens of beaming youth in the summer of 1971. The play pivots between the week in which they met, and the week which will separate them forever, as Mr B fights a losing battle against emphysema.
The puppets are a triumph. The character of their wooden faces; the subtle, painful trajectory the elderly ones make. The strong, athletic younger puppets swim and play squash with enviable energy. The figures, five-sixths of life size, appear tiny, but are large enough to handle normal-sized objects.
It is brave to have orchestrated a puppet show in the round, as the audience is acutely aware of the two or three men manipulating each mannequin from every angle. It is a testament to their skill that this works well. The puppets are voiced by living puppeteers, so sometimes it’s hard to know what to look at: the living flesh or the unseeing faces.
Adjoa Andoh, who plays multiple roles extremely competently, is the glue which holds the simple yet complexly devised story together. She speaks in several different voices that provide the context and changes in timbre that the silent puppets cannot in this slow, truthful love story.
To 18 November (020 7452 3000)