Monday, 13 February 2012

Theatre review: The Devil and Mister Punch

This year a grotesque and disturbing British icon celebrates a major milestone. But enough about the Queen, and on to Mister Punch whose first recorded performance was 350 years ago in Covent Garden. Improbable celebrate the anniversary with The Devil and Mister Punch, in which the anarchic, destructive ethos of Punch & Judy spills out beyong the puppet show. One thing I didn't know was that Punch enjoyed a period of great popularity in America in the 19th century (so Americans liked to watch performances by a well-known wife-beater long before Chris Brown came along.) This is the period the show takes inspiration from, with the puppets based on the designs of New York showman Gus White; and instead of a lone "professor" we have a pair of vaudevillians, Harvey & Hovey. A cast of six perform the play which does incorporate much of the traditional Punch & Judy story, but spills out to the flesh-and-blood actors as well.

So alongside the crocodile, dog, hangman etc, we see the story of a bull in love with the matador, in one of the more bizarre sequences, while all along Harvey in particular seems to be having his own breakdown, the puppet-master becoming the puppet. Alternately funny, melancholy, macabre and grotesque (the hanging of Jack Ketch comes complete with a neck-snap sound effect that made the audience gasp,) I think this is the kind of show whose ideas and metaphors you could discuss for days, never shaking the suspicion that ultimately it doen't actually mean much at all.

Jan compared the show to a series of very slowed-down Spike Milligan Q sketches, and the sometimes leisurely pace was probably my biggest problem with it; the show is surreal enough without dragging bits out, and the instances of cheesy music-hall gags seem to miss the point if they're not done snappily. The work done with the puppets and endlessly clever set (by Julian Crouch, Rob Thirtle and Mike Kerns) is inventive and shows a real fascination with the subject (the Hieronymus Bosch Hell of discarded puppets is a great image; as well as probably giving a pretty accurate idea of what Ian's personal Hell would look like) but overall the show didn't quite click with me.

The Devil and Mister Punch by Julian Crouch, Rob Thirtle, Nick Haverson, John Foti, Saskia Lane, Jessica Scott and Seamus Maynard is booking until the 25th of February at The Pit.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.


  1. Hehe, you're not the first to say they throught of me whilst watching this! They actually invited me the fools, but when I mentioned I didn't think it would be my cup of tea, the invitation was subtly withdrawn.

    1. Actually I was almost surprised you hadn't seen this, because if there's one thing more inevitable than you hating puppets and farce, it's you ending up watching something involving puppets and/or farce.