TOTAL THEATRE magazine – Dorothy Max Prior

(Norwich & Norfolk Festival – May 2011)

Meanwhile, on the streets of Norwich is game-playing of another sort – the Whalley Range All Stars / Babok collaboration, Imaginary Friends.

The show toys very consciously and openly with its audience, and treads a careful line between improvisation and prepared material. The performers each take turns in initiating a game with other performers or with the audience – games that often resemble darker versions of childhood party favourites like ‘piggy in the middle’ or ‘statues’. Thus, each show is different, although there are repeatable motifs and scenes.

Gorgeous, hessian-sacking puppets are taken out from their (coffin-like) wooden boxes, and the group of puppets and-people set off, with their audience following at will. The puppets seem to lead the way, peering longingly into Starbucks or assembling themselves into a tableau inside Top Shop, taking advantage of the shop’s mannequins to enlarge their group temporarily. Then, it’s the manipulators who seem to have the upper hand, forming the close-to-life-size figures into a group sat on some steps; walking away from them so we can take in their sculptural stillness, sat as they are with Norfolk Castle as a backdrop.

There’s plenty of play on the ‘otherness’ of the puppet or doll: at one point we are invited to see them as ‘real’; as representations of people, or perhaps even creatures that have a life of their own – then suddenly they become the inanimate objects that they are. In this I am reminded of how children play with their dolls and teddies: one minute smothering them with love, the next using them as bats or mops.

In one of the spookiest scenes, the puppets are sat down for a picnic, then have their heads or legs or chests pulled apart to reveal hidden tablecloths, or pepper pots, or tasty treats to eat, and a hand becomes the handle of a knife secreted within.

In another scene that similarly plays with our emotions and responses, the heads of puppets become balls for a game of catch. It’s a tantalising game, and it is amusing to see the Saturday evening gaggles of giggling town-centre teenagers freaked out by their encounters with the puppets – and gratifying to see that many of them stay the course to see what might occur next.

Fun and games indeed!

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