views from the gods

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It's A Puppet Life
Etcetera Theatre
14th August 2012


There's nothing more upsetting than unfulfilled potential, and sadly that's one of the defining features of Stickyback Theatre's production. The group are adept puppeteers, able to manipulate the creatures well, unfortunately the show lacks the charm and sly wit of the Muppets, the well-targeted shock-factor of Avenue Q and something both shows have in spades - heart.

In fact, you could remove the puppets themselves from about 90% of the sketches and replace them with a willing stooge and little would be lost. The character designs are bright and well-observed (especially a famous movie monster and a creature largely made of socks) but that's all they really are - a distraction from the writing, which doesn't quite hit the mark.

Kicking off with song about it being a puppet's life, we then are treated to a series of sketches which tell us that puppets can be just as rude as humans. There's no through-line to the skits and very few call-backs. Some sort of narrative structure would help the show greatly - nothing too taxing, just maybe one lead character on the fringes of most of the scenes.

Of course, the jokes themselves don't help. If there were no pieces involving real humans, I would have suspected the quartet of being particularly skilled 15-year-olds. A focus on bodily functions was initially a mildly funny, if juvenile joke, but using the same punchline in three sketches became tiring. Equally, an initially really brilliant Batman sketch (complete with eerily accurate Christian Bale impression) lost all of its momentum as soon as it suggested the Dark Knight brought his victims to justice via sexual assault. Another Indiana Jones sketch began with uncomfortable racism, nicely acknowledged it, and then ended on it. Whether it was meant to be cheeky or ironic was unclear.

It is also a shame that in making the puppets largely incidental to the action, distinct personalities for the characters are not defined. They do try, but it's hardly Sesame Street territory, where the writers worked with educational development experts to give each a clear pattern of behaviour.

So the good? Well, other than the aforementioned nice designs and good puppetry, the performers certainly gave it their all. In both human and fuzzy form, their delivery is sharp, assured, and they aren't afraid to look silly. Some shadow puppetry involving Godzilla's failed attempt to visit the Olympic Games was also excellent, with precise, crisp movements and master manipulation. There were also a good few laughs to be had, even if it was a touch overlong.

There are glimmers of hope in Stickyback. They certainly came up with a unique concept for a sketch show, but one that needed more work to allow the performers to really shine.

It's A Puppet Life ran at the Etcetera Theatre from 13th to 15th August 2012, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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