“On a small island, in the middle of the sea, a man meets a big bird…” Much Ado About Puffin tells a beguiling story of an unlikely, exciting friendship in a deliciously analogue world. A weatherbeaten seafaring man lives alone in a tiny cottage perched high on a steep cliff, with just his Roberts radio and his imagination for company. Each day, he sails in his tiny boat to the neighbouring rock, to look after a large, rig-like structure which seems to be a weather station, because he takes readings and makes notes with a pencil, and needs to keep things fixed, although in this near-wordless production, the exact nature of his job doesn’t entirely matter. What does matter is the challenges he faces in doing it: whether climbing dangerously down cliffs, navigating perilously rough seas, or dealing with loneliness with wit and courage when he comes home to his woodburner, his radio and his dreams at the end of the day. Into this demanding, but joyful life, comes an unexpected friend: a curious, cheeky and ultimately companionable puffin, and the unlooked-for gift of friendship becomes, increasingly and movingly, a necessity to them both.
A dual-layered design (by Dean Sudron) allows this production to oscillate between two visual scales, directed by Adam Fuller: the macro, in which the man is a puppet who can sit on a human hand, giving a sense of the vastness of the sea as he floats across the stage in his small boat, with a puffin no larger than an egg soaring in the sky; and real-life size, in which the man’s puppeteer (a task shared from night to night by Adam Blake and Adam Fuller) literally steps into his role with adept physical humour and choreography (including, memorably, ballroom dancing with a Barbour jacket for a partner), matched by a lifesize puffin who can steal his treasured pencil, or swoop across his sitting room. Our micro and lifesize puffins are brought to life on alternate evenings by puppeteers Debbie Hard and Kim Heron. This may sound complicated, but on stage it’s an incredibly clear act of physical storytelling, with transitions from large to small smoothly and swiftly negotiated, and children of all ages can follow the changing scope of the plot with confident ease and interest. Naïve but effective puppets by Emma Powell are coloured simply and naturally, and even the smallest puffin is clear to the eye. An evocative soundtrack by Sarah Moody builds a sense of time passing around a few key sea-shanty melodies, interspersed with atmospheric wind, rain and sea sounds: the sun and the moon rise and set by turns, simple painted circles curving across the back of the stage.
If you are looking for a digital detox for your children, or for yourself, Much Ado About Puffin’s gently adventurous tale, set in a natural landscape so fresh you can almost smell the salt spray on the cliffs, is a breath of fresh air. There are a few hidden treats for grown-ups, too: not least the gorgeous, crackly vintage radio sounds (scraps of magnificent Shakespeare, a little patch of Fleetwood Mac, and other joys). It makes you want to reach for your sou’wester and your wellies, and get out there into the raw, bracing, unexpectedly kindly world.
Reviewed at Norwich Puppet Theatre on Friday 27 October 2017
Presented by Open Attic Company
- Saturday 11 November: Bruton Community Hall, Somerset (07473 864 413)
- Friday 17 November: Launceston Town Hall, Cornwall (01726 879 500)
- Saturday 18 November: Millbrook Village Hall, Torpoint
- Saturday 25 November: Red Brick Building, Glastonbury (01458 899 564)