views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Sex and Puppets
The Pleasance, Islington
27th November 2016

★★★☆☆

Publicity photograph for Sex and Puppets

Photography provided by Wondering Hands Theatre

When it comes to contenders for the best worst date ever, dragging a near stranger along to a show called Sex and Puppets by a company called Wondering Hands has got to be right up there. Who does that? Well, me, obviously, in what probably counts as a first of some kind. Over the course of 50 minutes, puppeteers Alicia Britt, Dan Walker, Eti Meacock and Kate Powell tell a number of stories about other first experiences, ranging from the chastely innocent to downright disturbing using sock puppets, marionettes, even floating bits of gauze. It seems as if designer Britt has purposefully used puppets made from as many different colours, textures, shapes and sizes to demonstrate that this a show that should belong to absolutely everyone, whether mainstream or minority. Sebastian Freeburn's chosen music is tongue-in-cheek and fitting, including all the classics you would expect. It's clear the company are having a lot of fun with Sex and Puppets - and why not?

Whilst the show does deliver what its title promises in spades, there's no clear narrative arc or set of defined voices and that makes it difficult to initially buy into it. There's a certain charm to the puppeteers' enthusiasm, however engaging fully with the audience from the very beginning would make more of an impact. The company have devised Sex and Puppets based on anonymous submissions (contributing to the lack of coherency) and intend for each scene to be very much a pick and mix selection to be adapted for each stop on their tour. Although this demonstrates a huge amount of ambition, a through line or even just a recurring puppet would fix most of the teething problems with the work-in-progress. Better signposting too would help - it takes a while to understand the piece's true intent of education, which is a shame, given how noble it is.

As well as the disjointedness, the other issue to address is the pacing, which seems wildly off at the start. Time seems to come to a halt for the opening sequence involving a Muppet-esque pink puppet called Fuzz and a top shelf magazine. The scenario itself is okay and some of the props are very detailed and clever, but the payoff really isn't worth the delay. Tightening up the timing here would bring out the humour much more strongly. That's not to say that the show doesn't entertain though. Yes, it's rough round the edges and still in development, however it's also very funny. Whilst you might expect STIs to be unpopular, genital wart, crab and chlamydia puppets are all received surprisingly well by the audience. Walker improvises with the front row and this receives plenty of well-deserved chuckles. There's clearly an appetite for more participation, which is a credit to the company given how awkward the whole experience could be.

Following in the footsteps of Broadway hit Hamilton, the company can't resist a dig at the President Elect, with a song performed by Lady Glitteris and The Vajazzles, a trio of puppets in the style of... well, if you can't work out their design from their name, you have no imagination. Although not every line of prerecorded audio is clear, the refrain is catchy enough and the message not only political and current, but perfectly in keeping with the message behind the show of empowerment. Sex and Puppets is about sharing stories, good and bad, and about recognising that if we don't talk about the negative experiences, we risk normalising or trivialising them. And there is nothing normal or trivial about a man in a position of power who thinks he has the right to grope all women. As Lady G and her friends say, "keep your hands off."

Who knew puppets could have so much potential? Wondering Hands have some brilliant ideas, relentless energy, an enormous amount of potential and a burning itch (no, not that kind) to tell the sort of stories that should be out there in the open.

Sex and Puppets ran on 27th November 2016 at The Pleasance, Islington.

Nearest tube station: Caledonian Road (Piccadilly)



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