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The Wordcatcher
The Blue Elephant Theatre
16th October 2012

★★★★☆

Little Emma and Big Emma

Photography © Jax Braithwaite

The art of good storytelling has very little to do with the plot itself. Rather, it's all about the magic in the delivery, whether or not you can capture the audience's imagination. Using a skilful blend of music, acting and puppetry, Smoking Apples do just that in their bewitching tale, The Wordcatcher.

Molly Freeman plays Emma, a young woman who has somehow lost the ability to speak and who communicates through written messages. Words don't leave her mouth, but she is still truly fond of literature, always seeming to carry a book around, constantly reading.

Quite by chance, her path crosses with George (Matt Lloyd) and a busker (Hattie Thomas), separately and together. All three are deliciously awkward as they struggle to find a common ground and express themselves. Despite George's attempts at befriending Emma and the busker, they are three strangers who clearly don't quite connect.

The story is enhanced with the addition of fourth cast member, Little Emma - a puppet version of Freeman. Wearing the same clothes as her real life counterpart, she is made to move delicately, with both sudden and soft movements, displaying the same timid and sometimes volatile personality. The puppet itself is wonderfully crafted, but the beauty comes from how the cast imbue it with human emotion.

A fifth member, the Crow, is primarily manipulated by Thomas. She makes it glide through the air, then flap gently to maintain its journey. The necessary subtle touches help you see past the completely unconcealed puppeteer and marvel at the puppet itself. Both the Crow and Little Emma have an enchantingly graceful manner to them.

The shadow puppetry from Freeman and Thomas, which takes place as Lloyd acts alone under the spotlight is charming. It's unfortunate though that whilst Freeman and Thomas work well together, this combined unit does not quite sync with Lloyd. In this scene, they take their cues from sound, rather than looking at each other and in a few places the timing wasn't quite there.

Molly Freeman and Matt Lloyd

Photography © Jax Braithwaite

As the trio performed as individuals, they worked perfectly in unison, almost dancing. The direction was for the most part, well considered and successful. But on a few occasions, Freeman was slightly too close to the front row and it is important that the entire audience can see her, given her largely silent role.

The music, composed by Smari Gunn and Hattie Thomas was beautifully melancholic and performed well, particularly Thomas' live saxophone playing. However, the pre-recorded audio was particularly jarring as it looped. The lack of bass exacerbated the sound quality issues, which was a shame as the piece itself was good. It's possible this was deliberate, given the focus on miscommunication, but it would have worked better as a smoother piece of audio.

There are some small issues for Smoking Apples to refine, however the Blue Elephant is a forgiving beast. It welcomes those performers who are brave enough to experiment with new ideas and new concepts and that's what makes every visit there so exciting.

Smoking Apples have the same gift for puppetry as Tree Folk Theatre and same sense of whimsy as How It Ended. That's not to say that Smoking Apples aren't fresh and exciting, because they are. They have a unique vision and a great deal of flair.

The Wordcatcher ran from 16th to 20th October 2012 at The Blue Elephant.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)



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