It's not often these days that you get to see a show with a company of 40. You only do so in the remarkable case of Happy at The Pit because they're puppets. The human company of the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes numbers one and a half: Burkett himself, who handles all the manipulation and voices, and a stage manager who simply hands some of the figures to him.
Alberta-born Burkett uses the background of an enormous dresser to stand for an apartment block, in which most of his characters live, whether in the flesh or in the memories of others. When young slacker Drew dies in the act of love, his neo-hippie poetess widow Carla's coming to terms is the thread which links the stories of her various neighbours. It is in turn mirrored by scenes from the Gray Cabaret, whose MC, Antoine Marionette, takes a camp yet grisly delight in presenting to us the many faces of grief as interpreted by the likes of Perry Homo and Jacqueline DuPressed.
Burkett says that his show is simply an examination of happiness: what is it and who has it? In these two uninterrupted hours, though – and notwithstanding the example of the narrator, an old man actually named Happy – happiness seems simply to be what you're left with once you've worked through your grief, and it is the latter which takes up far more of Burkett's time and attention. His meditations upon living in colour as opposed to grey, too, are reductive, considering the whole range of "colour" as a single stuff presented in binary opposition to "grey".
At times Happy is cringeingly overwritten; at others, Burkett in the character of Antoine departs from his script and goes into a five-minute ad-libbed riff of such glorious bitchiness that the puppeteer himself can be dimly seen covering his own mouth in horrified delight. At such points, though, it is an effort of will to raise one's eyes to Burkett himself, for he so expertly gives voice and movement to his puppets that we quickly and entirely accept them as characters in their own right. It is a demanding evening, not least in its duration, and is a world away from the preconceptions we may have of puppet shows as being slight. Burkett is an astounding craftsman in terms both of making his marionettes and of giving – yes – life to them on stage.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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