LA CAUSEUSE (THE LOVESEAT) at the Tobacco Factory Theatres on 10th September

To close this year’s Bristol Festival of Puppetry, Olivia Faye Lathuillière’s delightful and sometimes sinister physical theatre was a fitting finale. Using a highly imaginative mixture of mime, deadpan comedy and magic with a dash of eroticism, Lathuillière entranced her audience with her strange relationship with a plush red velvet armchair.

Arriving like a latecomer to the performance, Lathuillière paces around the auditorium checking her ticket, looking for her seat. Gradually it ‘dawns on her’ that the one centre-stage, in the spotlight, is hers. She sits between its red arms, looking back at us, unfazed, crossing her legs this way and that to find more comfort. The positions become more intense, more acrobatic and funnier, as she explores the chair’s geography for more support. Until, that is, she is finally swallowed up by it!

Once inside the chair, Lathuillière’s hands reappear at the back and on top of the seat. Acting as expressive ‘puppets’, her right and left hands independently act out a relationship. Moving quietly, poetically, to a classical piano track, the hands become more carnally entwined, before finally breaking apart emphatically with a middle finger raised.

With cleverly placed spotlighting and a backing of strange, atmospheric electric guitar-led music, there is a general feeling of disquiet as one hand remains sitting on the top of the chair, only for Lathuillière to magically appear from the side of the stage, with her own two hands in tact! In a beautifully observed sequence, she takes the ‘third’ hand and mimes a sultry dance with its imaginary, invisible owner, but finds herself pulled by this ‘ghost’, irresistibly back towards the interior of the chair.

After more surreal twists in the tale, Lathuillière begins to return the chair’s advances. Again, clever use of lighting and Lathuillière’s grasp of visual surprise were more than enough to make this imagining of romantic and sexual obsession sizzle along nicely.

It is worth looking out for future productions by the French puppetry and movement company Sens Equivoc, of which Olivia Lathuillière is a talented performer with the imagination and wit to make the mundane spring to life.   ★★★★☆    Simon Bishop    10th September 2017


THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES at the Watershed on 3rd September.

Bristol seems to enjoy a non-conformist, highly individualistic yet cooperative spirit. That puppetry and animation should find its ground zero UK here should be no surprise.

As part of the now annual Bristol celebration of all things puppetry, this collection of stop-motion pieces, all meticulously crafted, mostly in eastern Europe, was a pleasantly macabre way to spend a wet Sunday lunchtime at the Watershed.

A fatal accident, a tethered patient exploding into vegetables, a vengeful spirit, mischievous murderous scones, a dystopian Christmas wasteland, lonely humanoid manikins, string people heartlessly unwound and someone on the run from a mad axeman – this dark collection of stories all had extraordinary charms within their artistry, while many shared a common theme of oppression.

A Drop Too Much by Bretislav Pojar has some memorable sequences. We follow a lone motorcyclist as he follows the contours of a country road. He’s a thoughtful, but later we find out, a foolish man. Careful enough to avoid squishing two snails on the road, he later stops at an inn where a wedding reception is in progress. Unfortunately for him, he imbibes a little too much schnapps with the revelers, with catastrophic consequences. But never mind the story, what makes this a mini masterpiece is the exceptional model making, lighting and motion. As our doomed protagonist later speeds up to keep pace with a nighttime express train, Jiří Trnka’s art direction is a wonder to behold. Alongside the steaming behemoth, with its coach lights flickering down on our biker’s road, the tension keeps building as warning road signs begin to flash past our rider unheeded.

The short, Flora, by the much-admired animator Jan Švankmajer is a sort of vegetarian nightmare. A patient tethered to a bed is unable to free herself as her limbs sprout cauliflowers, tomatoes and cabbages as she looks on helplessly towards a glass of water just out of reach.

Yuki Onna is the dark magical tale of a boy who survives the attentions of a Japanese snow demon (the Yuki Onna), by promising never to tell of how she killed his woodcutter companion with a blast of her icy breath, while sheltering from a storm. The boy grows up and happily marries. His wife strangely maintains her youth even with ten children in tow. Perhaps that should have been a warning to him! Directed by Jiří Barta, the film includes some spellbinding montages of photographs and video clips as well as highly atmospheric use of bassoon and vibraphone to accompany the narrative.

Scones, directed by Gyula Nagy, starts with a woman leaving some dough to prove in the larder. As soon as she has left the room, lumps of the stuff come to life under the tea towel. Mayhem ensues. The little blobs build themselves a fully-fledged funfair out of kitchen utensils and start to whoop it up! But then one of the doughballs scolds itself against the hot oven and cooks one of its sides. Cue panic amongst the little globules as they suddenly realise their fate! They hear the woman opening the door! All I will say is that, this time, it is not the baker who does the cooking!

DIM, directed by Marek Skrobecki was in some ways the most disturbing in that its two protaganists, stitched-together humanoids with very realistic eyes, seemed unsettlingly real. Padding about in an oppressively claustrophobic flat, their only relief comes from a bird feeding at an open window. When the bird fails to appear, their world crumbles.

The Christmas Ballad, directed by Michal Zabka manages to be fun to watch and bleak to comprehend. In this dystopian world anything bordering on fun or Christmassy has been hunted down and eliminated. Until, that is, that one of the ‘death machines’ opens to reveal its operator, who has come across a boy who has magically breathed new life into the devastated landscape.

Body Memory, directed by Ülo Pikkov, is a compelling piece of animation. A group of ‘people’ made out of string is captive in a box with open slat sides. You are aware of things going on beyond the box, but are never sure of what it is. One by one the string people have their threads pulled from outside the box. As hard as they struggle, they are unwound at alarming rates, disappearing completely as each string whips out through the sides of the box.

So, finally, to The Escape by Jarosław Konopka, an exclusive showing for the festival. The most terrifying of the bunch, it was the clever use of sound that most elevated the horror of this piece. The sound of rustling corn as our heroine slides panicking into the crop to escape her monstrous pursuer or the banging of an open window and the blowing out of a lamp conjured deep unease.

Delving into the darkest parts of our psyche, this collection proved just how powerful a medium puppetry and its manipulation through film can be in the hands of dedicated followers of the art.    ★★★★☆   Simon Bishop     3rd September 2017