Monday 24 November 2014

Punch and Judy in Afghanistan at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Stuffed Puppet has taken the seaside Punch and Judy tradition and transported it to the desert of Afghanistan. Neville Tranter’s one-man puppet show combines some sharp one-liners with a sense of the absurd, to put the puppeteer right at the heart of the political action.
Punch and Judy in Afghanistan tells the story of Nigel, a puppeteer visiting Afghanistan to entertain the troops. His assistant Emile goes missing on the back of an over-excited camel and when Nigel risks life and limb to find him, he unwittingly discovers the whereabouts of one of the western world’s most wanted terrorists.
Along the way, Nigel meets a whole host of manically glitter-eyed caricatures, from the owner in love with his lost camel to ‘Punch Bin Laden’ and his wife, Judy, who loves gardening so much that she’s cultivating a field full of poppies. While Emile may be joked about, his fate is unnerving. And will Nigel be able to make it out of there alive, to share what he’s found out?
With a simple set of a camouflage wall behind a line of poppies, Tranter ‘s skilful delivery is clear as he switches between an array of superbly crafted puppets, while also performing the role of Nigel. All the traditional Punch and Judy staples are here; the policeman is reimagined as a terrified young NATO soldier while the crocodile becomes a market trader, flogging a line of one-size-fits-all body bags.
There’s good use of music and witty observations aplenty. Early on Emile is described as having volunteered for Greenpeace as an alternative punishment to prison; charged with rescuing seals, he appears to have done something much more grisly with them. Perhaps we need to fear more for the fate of the camel than for its rider.
The ingredients are all in place but while this hour-long show throws up interesting, unsettling questions, the progression of the story is sometimes difficult to engage with and follow. The Tobacco Factory’s programme suggests a discovery of the repercussions of two clashing worlds of naiveté and cynicism; while these themes are certainly raised, this show falls short of any profound exploration of the resulting conflict of cultural values.

Seen at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol on 14th November 2014.

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