Theatre: There's more to puppets than Sooty and Sweep

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS always the suspicion that Slaphead was going to be just another ugly face. All month, Dibden Todd has gawped out at unsuspecting fringe-goers from the cover of the British Festival of Visual Theatre programme, the mindblowing IQ suggested by his bulbous, hairless bonce and NHS specs openly contradicted by two rabbity molars and a wild, vacant stare. Eye-catching, certainly - an unusual marketing mascot - but did Welsh company Green Ginger's latex-enhanced creation deserve the honour of conveying both the spirit of the festival and the weekend of puppetry at the Battersea Arts Centre that rounded it off?

The answer is a resounding yes. Slaphead, which deploys a mixture of puffy Spitting Image-style mannequins and actors with puppet heads and layered makeup a la Elephant Man, confirms that there's now much more to live animation in this country than the hackneyed fumblings of children's entertainers. It also goes some way to explaining that odd, tautologous- sounding phrase, "visual theatre".

The narrative thrust of the piece is simple enough, a variant of Sweeney Todd with a hint of Edward Scissorhands, in which a child born bald as a result of a freakish condition - ingrowing hair that eventually crushes the brain - becomes a psychopathic barber, exacting cruel revenge on his tormentors. But squeezed into every alcove of the higgledy-piggledy olde worlde set and every minute of the action, there's a detail that leaves a lasting impression, whether it be the craggy-faced, sodden newspaper vendor whose only cry is "more rain", the birthday card that lets out a Wurlitzer blast when opened, or the miniaturised chamber of horrors that Dibden operates with salivating glee.

The director, Kevin Brooking, and his company achieve far more than a sideshow entertainment, though. The audience is effectively put in the position of a child, trying to make sense of the world through vivid images which, endearing or endangering, have a subconscious, primal force. The absurd, almost orgasmic spasms of Dik Downey's Dibden are not just the caricatured symptoms of a daft medical complaint but also the manifest hurt of a child slapped down by the adult world (represented by a gallery of crone-like grotesques, from Dibden's indifferent parents to a fascistic Victorian policeman).

Faultyoptic is another group of puppeteers using the rigid expressions and controlled movements of their charges to explore unpredictable and even unpalatable aspects of human behaviour. Their extraordinary Tunnelvision also features bald, pinched-looking creatures, only on a much smaller and, ultimately, more disturbing scale. As with Slaphead, you initially marvel that such obviously constructed entities can be so lifelike, but disbelief is soon sufficiently suspended to reverse the insight: you start to recognise the inanimate and inhumane qualities in man.

Liz Walker and Gavin Glover, both hooded like members of a sinister cult, push and prod a small, beady-eyed figure in convict rags round a tiny platformed cell with jerky movements of infinite world-weariness. His barren daily routine, painstaking portrayed down to the last splash of urine in a tiny chamberpot - is punctuated by the demonic intrusions of a pig-faced infant on a space-hopper. The fantasy worlds into which both escape in their dreams are only slightly less nightmarish than thisconcentration- camp existence and eventually both landscapes merge as the edifice on which they perform shakes to war-like rumblings and the drone of a model zeppelin.

Come the end, we should be cooing over the finesse that allows us to follow a mini rollercoaster ride on a live video relay but, by then, we've glimpsed a microcosm that is, in its own little way, stomach-churning.

`Slaphead': details on 0117-942 3212; `Tunnelvision' tonight-Fri, Kommedia, Brighton (01273 277772) as part of Visions 98 puppet festival, then touring nationwide to January