They've got no strings... Clare Bayley on the theatrical power of the new puppetry

On an 80ft barge, an 18in galleon is rocked by Prospero's unnatural waves. The eye instantly adjusts to the scale, a boundless ocean is easily encapsulated in a 6ft stage, and when Prospero enters, stiffly walking, staff in hand, you'd never think he was less than 1ft high. When he calls for Ariel, a radiant, light-filled creature appears: this Ariel is made of solid, blown glass.

Magical visuals, lavish lighting and music aside, the extraordinary thing about Movingstage's marionette version of The Tempest is its simplicity. The fact that Prospero is a puppet (with an actor's taped voice) in no way lessens his potency. The scenes with Miranda are, if anything, a more moving portrayal of a father / daughter relationship than can be found in human versions. It is as if the lack of facial expression, acting and ego in the performers frees an audience to focus on the tale being told. The puppets symbolise humanity without distracting human details.

The truth is that within the tiny wooden body and floppy, jointed legs of each puppet, there is a serious creative artist bursting to get out. Maybe they have to do children's work to pay the rent, but they're capable of much, much more. Movingstage has a long tradition of presenting a parallel programme of adult work alongside its children's fare (Howard Barker and Wendy Cope have both written original plays for them), but now there's a whole movement following in their wake.

The nouvelle vague, calling itself "animation" and claiming kinship with Spitting Image, Tim Burton and other fashionable filmic animateurs - in order to dodge the bad name puppetry has acquired by association with the likes of Muffin the Mule or Bill and Ben - now enjoys a regular monthly showcase at BAC: the DNA (Dynamic New Animation) Cabaret.

The format is emphatically experimental. Each act is a five- to 10-minute work-in-progress, either part of an unfinished longer project, or a short piece created specially for the cabaret. The range is necessarily varied in quality but equally, and hearteningly, varied in form.

Here is to be seen the adaptation (or bastardisation) of traditional forms from bunraku rod puppetry to marionette string puppets, as well as the direct descendants of the "trash" animations or "theatre of objects" pioneered by Faulty Optic. In the latter tradition, two students of the London School of Puppetry, Alison McGowan and Alex Finnegan created a nightmare world of abominable science and mutant genetics for Sorcerer's Apprentice. Though technically ragged, this ambitious piece successfully communicated its warped logic to its audience.

Much gentler, if technically superior, Sharon Silver and Sarah Fuller's Rodney Finds Love used a hand puppet and shadow puppetry to create a slim but strangely whimsical tale. Anna Ingleby was the only act to use a marionette - named Saraswati, an ebullient Indian dancer from Rajasthan (accompanied live by a tabla player), this was a simple idea but expertly articulated.

n `The Tempest' is on the Puppet Theatre Barge at Richmond on Saturdays 30 Sept and 7 Oct at 8pm (0836 202 745). The next DNA Cabarets are this Sunday and Monday at BAC (0171 223 2223)

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