Review: The Red Balloon, The Puppet Theatre Barge

Aboard a quaint little barge, that moors in the waters of Little Venice during the winter months, I am surprised to find a fully functioning theatre complete with stage, lighting rig, and material clad seating to house just over 50.  The Puppet Theatre Barge travels the waters of London, as well as far off reaches of the world to bring puppet shows to both children and adults alike.

A family-run company, now into its third generation of creating puppet based theatre on water, present to us The Red Balloon – based on Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 film of the same name. It is a simple tale devoid of the necessity for language but accompanied by an expressive original soundtrack by Josh Middleton.

The story is simple yet beautiful. It tells the tale of a small boy and the friendship he finds in a large, red balloon. There is an array of other characters that come along to test or enhance this relationship. It is almost as though we watch him develop and learn more about communication and friendship. It has everything you might expect from classic theatre, goodies, baddies, moments that evoke laughter and tears only the entire tale is told through puppetry. There is certainly vast skill in being able to deliver a story live without a single living thing on stage. The company trust that these little wooden objects will deliver to the same level both physically and emotionally, and I must say they really rather do.

The puppets perform on a scaled down replica of a traditional proscenium arch stage, the backdrops change with the passing scenes and the props and costumes are all spectacularly detailed. This forty-five minute puppet show sits somewhere between animation and live theatre in the way it feels. There are moments where the atmosphere is alike to watching a series of drawings brought to life onscreen by a skilled cartoonist. In other moments I have to remind myself that I am not watching live actors on stage.

The craft of the puppet handling is astounding, and clearly something that the manipulation team, Elizabeth Barron, Stan Middleton and Soledad Zárate, have mastered. I’m still amazed at the fact that it is a team of only three people that stand behind the scenes, pulling the strings, quite literally bringing the entire movement onstage to life. The puppets move with such a human quality that I admit I was quite overwhelmed at times and feel I have gained an increased respect toward this somewhat acquired taste of theatre.

The entire atmosphere of this show is wonderful. The barge is packed full of people and the theatre is full with an exciting buzz. A family show at heart, but enjoyable for all. It’s an experience out of the ordinary and is something that I would recommend for both the experienced and novice theatregoer.

The Red Balloon is playing at the Puppet Theatre Barge until March 19.