The Puppet Theatre Barge, currently on a summer tour of the Thames but usually found in Little Venice, was established in the late 1970s with the intention of promoting marionette theatre. With Michael Palin as patron and a back catalogue of critical acclaim, the endeavour doesn’t look like it will be shutting up shop any time soon. The welcome on this wet and windy night is hearty and homely, enough in itself to warrant a second visit I’m sure, despite my misgivings about its current offering.
Not one to shirk from the challenges of new writing, the Barge is current performing End Games: a tale about aging based on the poetry of Finuala Dowling. Over the course of 80 minutes we meet an elderly lady, a new resident at a local care home who is losing her memory and her ability to communicate with her family: her daughter and her grandson.
I have next to no experience with marionette theatre. Actually, I was looking forward to seeing a showcase of its theatrical advantages. But I left disappointed: too often the puppets played a hindrance rather than a forte. Dialogue is pre-recorded character by character resulting in awkward delays between lines, and the background fuzz of an audio channel opening before a character speaks often distracts. Precision in recording also lacks, and the timbres of the voices are noticeably different from each other. The pace dragged with each tottering entrance or exit, and still an unjustified full-scale Punch and Judy routine was squeezed in, completely alien from the play’s clear theme.
Then there are the words themselves. Often End Games quotes from Dowling’s beautifully crafted lyrical poetry. But in other moments, it follows Kate and Gren Middleton’s exposition-heavy and occasionally heartless original script. The supposedly attentive care home nurse was the epicentre of the problem for me. Her patients give several examples of the ways in which their wailing memories are having a crushing effect on their wellbeing and are met with reassurances such as, “that’s a shame, but sometimes we have to get on with life.”
It is during this scene also that we witness Solomon arrive as a new patient, accompanied by his partner. Despite transparently explaining that he has brought Solomon to the home because he “cannot cope any longer”, before sitting through one of Solomon’s emotional breakdowns, their demeanour and relationship are jolly throughout. Solomon’s partner leaves the stage with what might as well be a “cheerio everyone” at the end of the scene.
There are however sequences and elements worthy of weighty credit. In addition to the intricately handcrafted marionettes, the lights alone are transportative, whether they are side-lighting a patient’s cavernous and barren room, or the final tableaux of a coastal scene gently licked by the rising sun. Though Josh Middleton’s music is occasionally incidental in its use, the exquisite scenes that utilise Dowling’s poetry – full of lines about “shattered genius” and “Jackson Pollock” gestures – are given extra weight by the soundtrack.
Some moments of genius will stick with me. The aging theme is sculpted diligently as we progress through the play’s six movements. It is quite touching when the young grandson explains that “grownup’s brains aren’t developed enough” yet, when they can’t understand him. It’s a delicate touch too to pick out an ancient crumb in the cracks of a kitchen table as a relic of memory. After all, furniture lives alongside and often outlasts its owners.
For me, the highlight was a dream scene in which Grandma’s head takes centre stage, and explains to her spider companion that she has lost her body. It’s a well-chosen metaphor for the loss of one’s memory, the head having to accept some appendages once they are found, even though she doesn’t recognise them as her own. The voice acting is excellent here, but noticeably of better quality in content and delivery than almost all the other sections.
It was encouraging to see such a full audience in attendance at a venue such as this: a little too out of the way, trying something a little different. Though the audience themselves were mostly tourists, it seems the perfect artefact to have a local following on the Richmond riverside each year. In all these respects, I can’t help but wish that the quality of piece had been enough for me to recommend a visit.
End Games plays at The Puppet Theatre Barge on the Richmond Upon Thames riverside until September 26. For more information and tickets, see The Puppet Theatre Barge website. Photo by Puppet Theatre Barge.