Picking up where he left off with his review of the first half (which you can read here) – Matt Miller covers the rest of the action from Newcastle’s biggest ever puppetry festival, Moving Parts, which took place from Monday 27th March 27th and run until Saturday 1st April.
Following two nights of entertainment, the Wednesday night of the festival saw us back at Cobalt Studios for a short film short case, followed by music and an object manipulation open mic night.
The films ranged from the bizarre to the laugh-out-loud to harrowingly poignant. Simon Cartwright’s BAFTA nominated MANOMAN -a journey through the life of the troubled Glen and his manic alter-ego – was a particular personal highlight. You can watch it here – and I’d properly recommend doing so. It’s both thought-provoking and bloody hilarious. Less laugh out loud funny, though vividly imaginative and with well-timed comic moments was Barnaby Dixon’s Eskos: disturbingly poignant and lonely, we watched a pair of robot skeletons harvesting the organs of fish cadavers until an unwanted avian intruder interrupted their operations. Also well worth a watch, and watchable here.
There were also two stop-start animation shorts by members of CRISIS, the UK’s largest national charity for people who are homeless. Again underlining Moving Parts’ focus on community outreach, they had worked with Lesley-Anne Rose, who made the festival trailer (here) – a touching film in its own right.
After a short break came music by Aether. With Tamara Mayela (returning to the stage having fronted her band Monkey Puzzle on Monday night) on violin, Kerrin Tatman on cello, and impressive vocalist and keyboard pianist Freya Bryson, this is a hugely talented band of multi-instrumentalists. Dealing mainly in a folk/classical fusion, with soaring vocals edging on the operatic, it had a feeling of past ages brought forward and made current. ‘Punk Song’ in the middle of the set, somewhat reminiscent of the Dresden Dolls, added some extra teeth and gave a hint of the versatility this band seems to possess.
Then came the open mic . . . this was all kinds of weird. First up was Madame Zucchini – a fruity performance artist dealing solely and exclusively in the world of vegetables brought her Political Hot-Potato Game Show in which vegetable monikers – Nigel Cabbage, Tim ‘The Turnip’ Farron, Teresa Maize, Jeremy Corn-Tin, Boris ‘The Squash’ Johnson and punless, but present, Donald Trump – were knocked off their podiums by potatoes thrown from the front row. This was, of course, all utter madness. But held together phenomenally well on the fly by an intrinsically watchable mad-hat performer.
Following that we dived further down the rabbit hole with a hungry dinosaur-esque puppet intent on devouring everything, including an entire saw and its own head, which came apart in Velcro chunks.
Following in this quickly established tradition of getting the stage covered in mess, the next performer brought us Slippery When Wet, in which she filled a condom with lube and water, tied it up, started playing with it, burst it, inevitably, all over the monitors (which were fine, I think). And then that was the end! Everything a good open mic should be; unpredictable, bombastic and tiptoeing dangerously close to the edge of utter shambles.
Thursday saw the first of two shows by Stephen Mottram; a stalwart of the puppetry world who has been working for decades in the art form. For The Parachute, Cobalt was completely blacked out – shutters down, all lights off – and the box-stage lit by fluorescent UV as Mottram told a story almost entirely with ping-pong balls. Using a combination of automata and hand operated equipment, he managed to effortless create characters on stage with nothing but these glowing circles of light. They ran, jumped, shrank, grew, parachuted, loved and at one point laid an egg. It was hypnotic, and hugely technically impressive.
Though difficult to follow the story initially, the metaphors and symbols became clearer and clearer as a narrative began to appear. The act of trying to figure out how the mechanism worked and casually wondering whether this man had 6 pairs of hands became less present and distracting also, particular once I’d realised that I could see a little of the puppeteers face. In his Q&A, the next day, Mottram talked about this, saying that he had experimented with making himself invisible entirely, which was doable, but that the audiences’ brain then started to see an animated film, rather than a puppetry show, and turned off. There certainly were points where it felt like watching a 2d 90’s platform game, which was massively appealing but would, I think, have become tiring without occasional reminders of the human element behind the work.
Following The Parachute we headed over for the first of the festival shows at Northern Stage – Death Puppet Klezma Jam – see more here – was a mash-up collaboration between puppet company Mirth and Misery – and Klezmer band Benny and the Cheesegrinder. Klezmer, the band’s charismatic accordion player and de-facto frontman explained, is an Eastern European style of folk music of Jewish origin. We were given a short lesson in this fast paced, dancey style, with a Romanian shepherds’ lament and a song probably written for the Rabbi of Traiasca, before Mirth and Misery appeared with a set of marionette puppets which they manipulated exquisitely. The show from there on in was fast-paced, non-stop, manic and massively entertaining. And in terms of the theme I’ve spotted of most puppetry shows seeming to be about death in some way or another, this was the most on the nose yet, with puppets ranging from dancing zombies to a T-Rex skeleton in a knitted jumper.
The Marked by Theatre Témoin was the second show of the festival to be held at Northern Stage. Mixing myth and London life on the streets to tell the story of a boy called Jack who was struggling to move past troubling and pre-occupying memories of growing up with an alcoholic mother, this show unfortunately didn’t seem to go far beyond doing what it said on the tin. Using a combination of actors, masks and puppets, it was largely well performed, very technically impressive and elicited strong emotional responses at times. However it never felt like an overly clichéd script quite got to the point of telling us much more about Jack than the program blurb had done. Here was a man who was Homeless and whose mother had been Alcoholic. Meanwhile, he was friends with some talking pigeons, which was never quite explained and, rather than feeling mythical and mysterious, was just a little baffling. There were seriously impressive moments in this production, and some amazing sleight of hand, but it felt in the end like it had tried to do too many things at once and struggled with the outcome. In the workshop I attended earlier in the week, a recurring question was to wonder why something was being done with puppets rather than actors – what were they adding? In the case of The Marked, it might have been better to do more with less.
Saturday saw a return to form with Stephen Mottram’s second show of the festival, The Seas of Organillo. This production was stunning. A show about conception and fertility set initially deep in the ocean, and then in outer space and all inside a womb, the marionette work by Mottram brought a further demonstration of his incredible technical skill. The lighting was also very cleverly designed and it often seemed that the shadows that the various puppets cast as they swam across the stage told as much of a story as the puppets themselves did. Mottled lighting on the roof of the theatre made the whole space feel even larger than it was and created the impression that we were all under water with these creatures – a shoal of fish moving as one, a pair of frog like animals swimming in unison with shadows that looked like water beetles, and more.
All of this was set to a strange ethereal soundtrack that felt a little reminiscent of some weird 70s kids TV theme – see The Singing Ringing Tree, for instance (which if you’ve never checked out, as a side note do – it’s fascinating and vaguely terrifying). Following the show, Mottram took to the stage to show us where the music had come from: a self-built Organillo – an instrument somewhat like a music box, in which a sheet of paper with holes punched into it is fed into a bellow chamber in which air is consequently directed down a series of organ pipes – in essence, an analogue sequencer. Having mic’d up every individual component of this instrument, those recordings were then used as the pallet for Mottram’s sound designer to use.
Throughout this demonstration, the audience were audibly and visibly stunned. Mottram is without question a very scientifically minded man and, I think, something of a genius.
Finally, we all headed back over to Cobalt Studios for the festival closing party, with music from Holy Moly and the Crackers. A tight outfit, Holy Moly are hard to beat for an evening of punk/rock/folk you can have a dance to – slick, professional, just ragged enough to let the light through, while remaining water-tight when they want and need to be, they are experts at working an audience. They’re very much a band, it seems, who’ve perfected their own style, and while they might risk stepping close to self-parody at times, there is enough fresh energy to keep the set moving and building to a frenzy. An incredible band of musicians who know each other like the backs of their pirate-y hands.
It’s been an incredible festival all in all, and a pleasure to observe and get involved in. Here’s hoping that Newcastle has enough fringe-art spaces left to accommodate a return of Moving Parts next year.
Here’s to an even bigger and better Moving Parts festival next year and to Newcastle becoming a pinned city for puppetry-heads everywhere. On this evidence, it deserves to be.