views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby
The Puppet Theatre Barge
22nd March 2015


Brother Terrapin and Brer Rabbit

Photography provided by Movingstage Marionette Company

Puppets on a barge. If you think you've heard of that before, you're probably thinking of twee 90s ITV show Rosie and Jim. But the Puppet Theatre Barge in fact came first, and has been entertaining children and their families for more than 30 years. Sometimes moored over in Richmond, sometimes in Little Venice, it's a delightfully quirky venue - probably the only one of its kind. Never mind Off West-End, this is Offshore. Theatre doesn't get floatier than this.

Climb aboard and you'll find a fully functioning long boat converted into a 50-seater theatre. As you'd expect, that means lots of short rows and a long distance to the stage for those at the very back. Thankfully that doesn't matter too much, given the seats are graduated and the grown ups are all asked to sit at the sides, with the children in the middle. This has the effect that no child is left trying to peer over a six foot-plus giant, and no child wriggles off either edge. The walls are adorned with marionette puppets - presumably part of the company's stock rather than purely decorative - and the entire venue sways gently as other boats pass it in the water. This is the sort of venue where little imaginations can run wild.

Sadly, as endearing as the barge itself its, Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby is underwhelming, although thankfully not as racist as Disney's attempt at the folk tale in Song of the South. EastEnders' Patrick Trueman - or Rudolph Walker in reals - narrates the tale with charm, but having a recording taking us through the plot means all gaps in dialogue are overestimated for safety. This leads to lulls in the action, and of course, there can be no improvisation whatsoever. In a show aimed exclusively at kids, you always need that option to go off-script and react to the audience. Walker may be a recognisable face if not name, but I'd happily trade for a complete unknown who is physically present in the theatre. Live dialogue would help energise the piece.

Brer Rabbit isn't among the most accessible of stories for children, as evidenced by the sheer number of adults having to explain and re-explain this tale after its conclusion. What's the moral to the Tar Baby? If someone winds you up, push 'em down a well. Okay, so the actual moral is to manage yourself so you don't perpetuate and make worse an unfortunate situation. But this particular re-telling, based on the collected stories of Joel Chandler Harris by Juliet Rogers, doesn't have the clear morality of, say, Blyton's writings.

The music composed by Dave Moore and Dick Heckstall-Smith sounds as old as the barge itself, with a bit of synth and jazz dating the production. The puppeteering by Elizabeth Barron, Edie Edmundson, Juliette Meacock and Jazmyn Sadri is fairly decent, but at no point do you believe the puppets are real. It's a bit of an odd comment, but in the best puppet shows there's so much humanity in the movement that you see past the strings and view the characters as more than what they are. Here, you're acutely aware that you're watching puppets. They're beautifully fashioned in a vintage style by Gren Middleton, but that doesn't mean the rest of the production has to be of that era: director Rob Humphreys misses opportunities to modernise this and make it something that today's kids connect with. Saying that, we don't want to pander to short attention spans or have Brer Rabbit struggling with microtransactions in a Tar Baby iPad game.

At 60 minutes, broken up with an interval in the middle, the timing is about right. Sitting still for any longer poses a challenge, and gives the children time to let off steam, run around a bit, and nip to the toilet. But given the pricing for a family of four, the cost does seem excessive for only an hour, when entry to other curious treasure troves like the Museum of Childhood and the much larger Science Museum remains free. It's a fabulous venue, and it doesn't need to change, but the production itself feels like it could do with a lick of fresh paint.

Brer Rabbit opened on 21st March and runs until 17th May 2015 at the Puppet Theatre Barge.

Nearest tube station: Warwick Avenue (Bakerloo)

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