27 Belfast Road, London N16
Opened 15 June, 1999

Like Ubu And The Truth Commission, Theatre-rites' Cellarworks uses vibrant interactions of human figures and puppets to achieve its effects. However, where the South African Ubu company get bogged down in philosophical complexities, Penny Bernand and Sue Buckmaster stick to abstract impressions. I freely admit I consciously noticed not a jot of the comments on life events which were supposedly woven into the show after extensive workshopping with a class of eight- and nine-year-olds in a Hackney school, but more general sensations of belonging, separation, manipulation and status of all kinds seep through discreetly yet powerfully.

This show for 8-11-year-olds, staged in the cellar of a derelict clothing workshop, hangs on the loosest of narratives: a young man asks for a suit to wear to his new job, and is offered a variety of garments too small, too big, too samey until finally persuading the mysterious Celia (Alex Martin) and her quintet of minions to listen to his desires. The cellar is hung with garment patterns, mazes of tape measures and the like, but the core of the presentational power comes through a variety of puppetry techniques. The most impressive is employed first, as an attention-grabber: a collection of suit patterns gradually coalesce in three-dimensional form to become a life-size human figure. Subsequently, a variety of suits are animated, ranging from the tiny to one which can seemingly accommodate all seven performers at once. (David Byrne would be green with envy.) At one point, David Tse as the bemused customer becomes a marionette himself, ensnared in the web of threads generated by the crew's sewing machines.

Whilst at times the events veers close to what a colleague described in a mutter as "1967 arts-lab" territory, it is for the most part engaging and open. The young audience with whom I saw it had never encountered a performance like this before one which demands that they move through the space themselves and even "enjoy the fabric" of an elastic-walled labyrinth and were quite captivated.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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