[author-post-rating] (4/5 stars)
There are three stick people on the screen above the stage: ‘Me (Joe)’, ‘Dawn’ and ‘Mum’, plus a cat. One of the actors has just drawn them and been filmed doing so from above his hands (think Art Attack), with the live footage sent right to the screen. And as he sits there, the other performers build a small house on the stage; they put three little model people inside it, and add the cat. Joe, Dawn and Mum. Slowly, surely, they go on to construct a perfect, miniature model town filled with little miniature people, the way you saw the world as a child, with butchers, bakers and dogs who steal strings of sausages.
Feral, it soon becomes clear, is a wholly original way of telling this story. As much an exercise in film-making as in puppetry, the three puppeteers take it in turns bringing the little town to life and filming it, which they do from quite close up with hand-held cameras, sending it right onto the screen. It’s two shows at once: watching them, you appreciate the time, the care, the meticulously rehearsed swapping of hands, juggling cameras and little people; watching the screen, you can simply get lost in the world.
And why wouldn’t you want to? It looks complete enough to explore and full of wonder, peopled with simple yet distinctive models, and meticulously detailed. If they pan past the bus stop slowly enough, you can see that somebody’s drawn a route map on it. That’s the level of care we’re talking about.
In addition to the three puppeteers, there are two other world-creators on stage. The first is editing the film as it goes out, cutting and cross-fading from one camera to the next, one angle to another. This adds another layer to Feral, in that it is an interesting examination of the way something is filmed to tell a story, using perspective, zooms and pull-backs, all of which you see in action here, and more unpacked than when you watch something on television. Meanwhile, the second is using loops and feeds to create the soundscape of the little town. In a particularly lovely sequence, Dawn takes Joe to the fair, away from their perpetually angry mother, and the hubbub, the sound of excitement and music builds slowly from the anticipation to the actual visit. It’s honestly beautiful.
But there’s something ever-so-slightly sinister about the silence of that mother and the still, blank white faces of the models. Inevitably, the whimsy and wonder of the little town begins to fade, replaced by something far more unpleasant, as a new arcade is built in what used to be the town’s park. Promising to bring jobs and breathe new life into the town, it actually turns out to be bad for business: soon, shops are closing and a job centre moves in, joined by an ever-increasing queue. People lose their homes and live on the streets while rats replace the chirpy squirrels of the first half.
The message seems to be that certain kinds of ‘progress’ risk ruining independent businesses and marring small towns forever. This is true and fair enough, though Feral does end up getting its point across in a rather sensationalist way as the show nears its end. It’s a shame, because Feral is in every other way such an extraordinarily intelligent piece of work – but still, intelligent enough to be more than pardoned these few slip-slides towards reductionist storytelling. The show was recently included in the first batch of 2013 Fringe Firsts and it’s very easy to see why: detailed, fascinating to look at and lovingly rendered, Feral is a true original.
Feral can be seen at 20.00 at Summerhall, every day except Tuesdays until 25th August. For more information and tickets, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.