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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
OR YOU COULD KISS ME
at the National (Cottesloe)

WOODEN PARTS
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler/ Ph: Simon Annand

As the lights came up on the matinee performance I attended of Neil Bartlett and the Handspring Puppet Company's Or You Could Kiss Me, the middle-aged man sitting next to me turned to his wife (I presume) and said, "What pretentious drivel!" To which she replied, "Oh, I liked it."
 
My own view falls somewhere in between.
 
A collaboration between playwright and director Neil Bartlett and the Handspring Puppet Company – whose extraordinary puppet creations for the National's mega-hit War Horse are still enchanting standing-room-only audiences at the New London in the West End (and soon to be seen at Lincoln Center) – the play combines puppetry with "live action," this time to chart the 65-year relationship between two gay men and to put under a microscope "the detritus of a life."
 
Beginning (and ending) in the seaside town of Port Elizabeth in South Africa's Cape Province in 2036, the play flashes forward to the summer of 1971, when A and B, as the protagonists are called, meet, fall in love and embark on their long journey through life together. 
 
What the authors identify as Young A and B (ages 9 and 20) as well as Old A and B (ages 85 and 86) are puppets, each manipulated by three very visible puppeteers. A and B in middle-age (they're in their late fifties) are played by humans.
 
The gist of the plot is that Old B is dying of emphysema. Memories mingle with dreams as their lives unfurl and physical decline and the inevitable ravages of time take their toll.
 
Though the random scenes depicted in this particular marriage are, according to the printed text, authentic and really happened (though how this is possible since the play ends in 2036 is never addressed), Bartlett is saying nothing new about the human condition in general nor old age in particular. Clearly aware of this, he and his creative team have gussied up the familiar material by substituting puppets and thereby imparting to the text an illusion of originality.
 
Yes, the slow, rather labored manipulation of the puppets command attention, giving commonplace gestures a fascination and significance they otherwise would not have had. And there's no denying there are some moving moments towards the end. But the play is pretentious. And framing the very slender narrative in Ovid's "Metamorphoses," part of which tells the story of Philemon and Baucis, lovers who were also only separated by death, does nothing other than enforce this impression.
 
Gravitas is also supplied by the play's only female character, identified simply (but yes, pretentiously) as the MC. In the guise of a white-coated lecturer she even embarks on a dust-dry talk on "the underlying mechanisms of memory alteration". 
 
Played by Adjoda Andoh, the MC also appears as the couple's long-standing housekeeper and, for a non-South African, musters an almost perfect South African accent. Not an easy feat.
 
In the main, though, flesh and blood are upstaged by wood and whatever else went into the creation of the brilliantly manipulated puppets. Remove them and all you'd be left with is a routine, uninvolving trawl through the sad but inevitable process of growing old and dying.
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