As the puppet Punch celebrates his three-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday, Improbable brings its take on “that’s the way to do it” in The Devil and Mister Punch in the Barbican’s Pit Theatre. It’s an evening filled with grotesque and twisted characters, where Punch seems always to get the upper hand and evade the clutches of the Devil through trickery. At times surreal, Improbable pushes the role of the most famous of puppet to the extreme, forcing the question of who is the real trickster; is it Punch, the puppeteer, or even the dark faces of the audience watching him?
Julian Crouch, Co-Founder of Improbable, has as many credits for The Devil and Mister Punch as there are characters and puppets in the piece. From devising, text, direction, puppet and costume design, and even some of the music and lyrics, this is very much a puppetry production born out of Crouch’s love (and perhaps obsession?) with Punch as a villainous character. As an audience, we are perhaps unfamiliar with the nineteenth century forms of Punch, after being conditioned by depictions in seaside Punch and Judy shows – but Crouch returns us to the true, filthy character.
Punch commits murder after murder, with his trusty bat to hand. After being locked up in jail and escaping hanging, the Devil drags Punch into the depths of hell populated by the discarded puppets from the show; a haunting image. Yet even in the puppet nightmare of disembodied limbs, Punch tricks his way to freedom. The sketches of Punch amongst the other puppet characters are dispersed between scenes of a vaudeville style act of Harvey and Havey. These two clown-like characters act as narrators of the piece, but also as a way of exploring the character of Punch in greater depth, allowing the bigger questions of morals, ethics and literal movement of Punch to be examined. It is through this device that The Devil and Mister Punch offers its audience an examination of puppetry as a form whilst magnifying the themes at play. It’s cleverly done, and doesn’t detract from the main hand-puppetry action.
Having said that, there is a degree of confusion in Crouch’s choice of framing and direction. There are scenes which seem rather superfluous to the overall piece, but just as you are thinking this very thought Crouch suddenly catches you out. So even in the moments where you feel The Devil and Mister Punch has strayed too far away from the main action, you are inevitably meant to feel this before being yanked back into focus.
What of the puppets and puppetry, then? Well, it might be hard to like a character who commits such sinister actions, but Punch is inevitably a joy to watch. The puppetry direction by Crouch sees a constantly changing array of puppets, style and comedic values being interspered at any given moment. The stage design allows for a number of framing moments to be established at once, but also gives a playful quality, especially during the classic chase scene between Punch and the Constable. Yet it’s the sheer mastery within The Devil and Mister Punch that makes it such a joy to watch. It continually grabs at you, forcing you to second guess what you just saw, and always pushing at puppetry form – at one moment Punch is human size with a gigantic mask for a face.
Whilst there are a few moments where jokes run too thin, and a certain predictability of plot and action occurs, this is minimal compared to the overall 90 minutes that The Devil and Mister Punch plays. If 2012 is the year to celebrate Punch’s birthday, then Improbabe has certainly gotten the party off to a explosion of a start, presenting a piece that not only shows the skill and artistry behind Punch as a character, but also extends this to its limits. Punch, and the characters that surround him, whether in puppet or human form, invariably create a nightmarish and grotesque world that sinks into the Barbican’s Pit Theatre. It’s almost as if the longer you watch the piece, the more you get caught in its brutal beauty – but it’s a beauty worth getting captivated by.
The Devil and Mister Punch is playing at the Barbican Pit Theatre until 25 February. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Theatre’s website.