Little Venice is one of those places in London that feels like a romantic dream – something completely remote from the buzz and stress of an energetic city. It does feel like walking on the roads of Italy (with the poor British weather sadistically ruining the mood) and, as you walk onto the small boat that is The Puppet Theatre Barge, you do feel your Sunday holiday feel is complete (ignoring the rain and grey water, that is). There is something ridiculously thrilling about watching a play on a boat. It’s so exotically different it feels like being kicked back into childhood. Being surrounded by beautiful marionettes and little people excitedly pulling their parents across deck does help the atmosphere.
Fowl Play is a sweet little marionette spectacle depicting life on a farm, with animals capable of speaking their minds and communicating with Molly, the farmer’s daughter. The farm’s newest arrival is a foal and the talk of the town – Mule is silent, but proves special to all and, when a sneaky thief steals him in the dead of night, the farm animals have to come together and find a way to bring Mule back to Molly.
Juliet Rogers’s story of friendship, play and intellect is a sweet adventure for children of all ages. The production is charming, uplifting and beautifully staged, with the marionettes being exceptionally striking in both form and manipulation. They are all made up of clever, precise details that not only visually convey the animal, but also tap into the rhythm of the different creatures down to a toe, a tail, or a feather. Together with the precision of string work and movement, the animals do come alive before us – all very different, individual characters. Gren Middleton’s atmospheric and charismatic lighting thrives with the beautiful backdrops, and Stephen Warbeck’s cheerful music is a delight. It is a performance of lush visuals, simple as they are, and the children in the audience quickly fall in love with the animals and their journey.
The only shame is the voiceover that drives the narrative – the quality of sound is a bit distant and doesn’t have a fresh spark to it. The pace between lines is very slow, which means the energy drops on occasions when a scene is very dialogue-based. That said, a music cue soon swiftly get us upright in our seats, and though the narrative abruptly changes in the second half – it seems like two stories suddenly knocked together – it is a charming little adventure that little ones will enjoy and act along to. And for grown-ups, the fascinating work of puppetry is a treat.
Fowl Play is playing at the Puppet Theatre Barge until 12 July. For tickets and more information, see the Puppet Theatre Barge website.